4 Stages of Competence



“I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence.”
Ayrton Senna

One of the models that helps me cope with learning new skills is the 4 stages of competence.  

It helps remind me of the progression from the early awkward stage to the competent stage.  

According to the model, you move from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

From Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence

Here are the 4 stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence.  You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious incompetence.  You know what you don’t know.
  3. Conscious competence.  You know how to do it, but you have to think your way through it.
  4. Unconscious competence.  You can do it without thinking.  You just know what to do.

Driving a Car and Unconscious Competence

    One of my favorite examples is learning how to drive.  When you first learn how to drive a stick shift, you very quickly learn that you don’t know how to do it (conscious incompetence). 

    As you practice you can start to think your way through it (the conscious competence stage).  As driving the stick shift becomes a habit for you, eventually you can drive without thinking, shifting gears effortlessly while you think about other things (unconscious competence.)

    Tying Your Shoes and Unconscious Competence

    Another example I like is when I first learned to tie my shoes.  My aunt gave me an effective technique and I remember practicing it all day.  I built unconscious competence soon after and I could tie my shoes pretty quickly which helped when I raced out to play.

    Photo by chefranden.


    1. I recall the other three stages that you and I have discussed as well. I guess they are in parallel
      1. Intellectual – You know it, but can’t physically do it.
      2. Physical – You are able to physical do it, but it’s thinking,
      3. Emotional (I think that what it was called) – It’s habit and sometimes there is even an emotional attachment to the habit

      Helps me to remember why it’s so hard to change habits.

      This is very useful in music actually. I know how to play a lot of instruments. Once you get to stage 3, then you can be truly creative because your brain can worry about how to express it’s emotion instead of the mechanics of how to play something. Oratory, dance and other types of creative tasks are the same way in my experience.

    2. I love this one! I use this model often when I start my trainings. To help people set effective expectations for for themselves and for their growth. I think people would grow a lot more, personally and professionally, if more of them understood this model. The most popular now seems to still be: teach – memorize – get a grade.


    3. @ Positively Present

      Thank you. I like the model because I can see it in action in so many ways.

      @ Louisa

      Looking back, there’s a lot of things I learned that I didn’t take to the point of muscle memory … I got them to think-mode, because I didn’t know the value of making it a reflex at the time.

      @ Rob

      Intellectual, emotional, and physical is actually a simplified version of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Affective, Psychomotor, and Cognitive.)

      Good example, and I should elaborate on this in a future post.

      @ Eduard

      My best teachers always went beyond memorization. I hated it at the time, but I appreciate it now.

    4. Sounds a bit like Rumsfled’s known unknown’s – LOL, but in fact not only i like it, i apply it myself too.
      I think it could be nicely wrapped in quadrant similar to Covey’s prioritization one – Urgent and Important – with a change to Consciousness and Competency

    5. @ Alik

      Good point. I tried to make a visual at one point, and I missed the mark. I need to test a quadrant approach again. I bet it would be close to a Johari Window.

    6. +1 on Eduard’s comment. These have always been a foundation in my mind. They set the pace for achieving results and allow you to understand why progress isn’t always as immediate as we’d like.

    7. @ Paul

      Nice precision – they set the pace.

      Sometimes I like to use the belt system in martial arts. Either way, it’s about setting or resetting our expectations.

    8. 3rd sentence: According to the model, you move from unconscious competence to unconscious competence.
      That might be typo: from unconscious INcompetence to unconscious competence.
      Then again, maybe I’m spotting too many details and need to improve speed reading. I must commend the blog for the good vibes its content sends out.

    9. Bob Pike, Master Trainer came up with a 5th level called “Conscious Unconscious Competence”

      Alot of ppl reach the 4th stage, they are very skilled but they often aren’t able to transfer their knowledge to others. Eg. Accomplished ballerina who cannot teach.

      So, the 5th stage is for trainers who can break it down into steps so that knowledge and skill can be transferred.

    10. @ VSChawathe

      Good catch – fixed!

      @ Dianna

      I like that distinction and I can identify with it. I know a lot of people that have mastered their craft, and can do it blind-folded, but can’t teach it to others.

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