The Psychological Effect of Moving From Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompentence

This blog post relies on you knowing what the 4 stages of competence are. There are loads articles written about this model, so I’m not going to do it here. You can try the Wikipedia page if you don’t know what it is.

Moving from unconscious incompetence (UI) to conscious incompetence (CI) is a sign that you’re starting to grasp the full extent of work needed to gain mastery in a skill. It’s a good thing: you now understand what needs to be worked on and developed so that you can gain mastery. However, I’ve realised that there’s something else that happens to me – and a lot of other people – when we step from UI to CI.

When we move from UI to CI, we get complacent. I’ve seen this happen time and time again with people who understand certain domains of skill to an adequate level. Take professional sports, for example. The newcomers look at table tennis and think, “I can totally hit that ball with that paddle (yeh, guys, it’s called a paddle not a bat, fyi) like those dudes on TV”. They’re excited to try something new and they have self-belief that they can gain mastery if they work hard. The guys who have already established themselves look at these newcomers derisively, knowing that the newcomer has vastly underestimated the work needed to achieve mastery. “You think you can become the best?”, they ask in their heads. “Ha. No chance.”

Fast forward to having spent 100 hours in that domain, and now the newcomer is 10x more skilful, but they’re 10x more complacent. They haven’t progressed as quickly as they expected they would and they now realise the extent of the work needed. It’s like they’re going backwards, psychologically: the more hours they put in, the less confident they become with their belief of gaining mastery.

That complacency sends them into a downward spiral. They become demotivated to do any more training, so they stop training, and then they stop getting better. Then they’ll probably tell themselves, “I wasn’t cut out to do this.”

It’s deeply ironic to think that they stop becoming more skilled in an area because they gained enough skill in that area to comprehend what it takes to succeed.

There are a lot of different psychological effects that exhibit themselves in different flavours from this transitional cause. Imposter syndrome is one being thrown around by a lot of people starting their first jobs at the moment. The Dunning-Kruger effect is another. But what can we do about it?

Obviously, you should talk to an expert, not some engineer writing a blog who has a casual interest in psychology. But if you were to ask some engineer writing a blog who has a casual interest in psychology, I would say a good strategy is the combination of two things: 1. being aware of how far you’ve already come and celebrating that, 2. a bit of self-aware self-delusion. Hear me out.


Awareness of how far you’ve come

You’ve got to stage two of four along the competency track. You realise now just how much better the experts are than you. But at least you realise that now.

Being aware of your awareness is something to celebrate. You can see what areas you need to develop more clearly and you understand the issues better. You’ve come a long way in being able to clearly see the remaining barriers that still stand in your way: before you were blind to them, now you can see them. The first stage in solving a problem is to understand that you have a problem, so this is a great first step. It’s always good to recognise this and congratulate yourself.

I also wonder how many happiness strategies are frowned upon because they’re not virtuous: i.e. list ways that you’re better than someone. You might not be as good as Federer in tennis, but at least you can beat your neighbour. You’ve come far enough to beat him (even if he’s 87 and plays with a walking stick in one hand and a racket in the other). It’s probably not good to consistently look for people who you’re better than in a certain skill, but maybe it’s more healthy than consistently comparing yourself to the greats/how far you still have to go. I’d say: do it, but only infrequently… and keep it to yourself.


Self-aware self-delusion

Okay, so I made this sound a little bit dramatic. Really, though, this strategy is just visualisation: visualising the result you want and imagining what it would be like to have already achieved it. I haven’t read the book The Secret, but I’ve heard that this idea is what the book is about. From what I’ve heard about the book, it sounds like it takes this strategy too far by saying, “use this strategy and all your dreams come true”: ignoring competency and other problems which would require different strategies to apply in parallel, which puts me off the book. Visualisation is one thing we need to do in conjunction with a number of other useful strategies. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. But I digress.

There will be times when you’re not that good at something: when you try something new. At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a short story. My writing is far from that of Hemingway. What helps me is imagining my name next to the likes of J.K. Rowling. I try not to lose sight of what I want to do: to have a short story that people will actually want to read as much as Harry Potter. I can see all the areas where my story is bad: poor pacing, I get too science-y/technical in a lot of places (= boring for 90% of people), sentence construction is just weak etc. But I try to ignore all that for the majority of the time, do my best at just tweaking the most immediate issue, then imagine that the rest is gold. Or at least it can be. Because the prospect of how far I still have yet to go – for me – is paralysing.

Being aware of the 4 stages of competence allows us to articulate our complacency: it gives us a model to understand what’s going on and why we feel paralysed. Finally, we can take one step further back. By realising that I’m aware of the 4 stages… I can choose what to do about it. And then if I choose to actively ignore it and pretend that I’m a great writer, I can live in my happy delusional bubble to help ride out the bumpy, demotivating transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.



These are all just my own strategies for trying to stay motivated. But I know there are others! What do you guys do? & What do you think of mine?

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