Four Levels Of Competence

The "Kirkpatrick Model" by Donald L. Kirkpatrick gives four levels of (increasing) competence:

  1. UnconsciousIncompetence = you don't know that you can't do it well.
  2. ConsciousIncompetence? = you know you can't do it well.
  3. ConsciousCompetence? = you do it well, and you think about the work as you do it.
  4. UnconsciousCompetence = you're so successful it's "automatic" -- you do it well, without thinking about it.

and we add: See also OrdersOfIgnorance

Books (...which are mostly out of print)

ISBN  1576750426  ISBN  1881052850  - Evaluating Training Programs : The 
ISBN  9995252678  - Evaluating Training Programs (out of print)
ISBN  0318132699  - Evaluating Training Programs : A Collection of Articles (out of print)
ISBN  0201134357  - "A Practical Guide for Supervisory Training and Development."

See also discussion at...

Dr. Mark Koh quotes an Arab proverb:
"He who knows, and knows he knows,
He is a wise man, seek him.
He who knows and knows not he knows,
He is asleep, wake him.
He who knows not, and knows he knows not,
He is a child, teach him.
He who knows not, and knows not he knows not,
He is a fool, shun him."

A very nice expansion of Socrates' Know thyself.

Discussion, moved from MysticalProgramming:

Just got two hits on [the MysticalProgramming topic], in a western rational explanation style. One was given to me by my friend KenMulligan?, who said performance passes through 4 stages, UnconsciousIncompetence (when you don't know what you don't know, you are smiling because you don't notice the brick about to land on your head), ConsciousIncompetence? (when you know you don't know, and set out to learn), ConsciousCompetence? (when you think while you do), to finally UnconsciousCompetence (when you program the way WardAndKent do). Second hit was this afternoon I saw in a book on learning organizations essentially the same thing, but in a graph showing performance along the x axis, conscious attention on the y axis, and as performance increased, the attention went up from zero to a max and back down again. -- AlistairCockburn

There is a related methodology-observation about the learning process. To achieve really efficient learning, it is necessary at critical moments to distract the pupil's attention (in a special way) from what you the teacher are trying to teach the pupil. The pupil's conscious attention actually gets in the way of learning. Partly this is due to the tension/frustration that builds up in the pupil when consciously trying too hard, partly it is due to the nature of the learning process itself. -- BoLeuf

To be perfectly honest, I think Ward lives in UnconsciousCompetence. I only visit from time to time, like once every couple of years. On a related topic, my biggest sadness about my current level of commitment to music is that I haven't been to UnconsciousCompetence for at least five years. Doing that once a month used to be what nourished my soul. -- KentBeck (in a melancholy mood, and I don't care who knows it)

This is also why it's so excruciatingly painful to learn a new tool in a discipline with which you are familiar: you are moving from UnconsciousCompetence to ExtremelyConsciousIncompetence?. ExtremelyConsciousIncompetence? is when you see the brick falling, and you know exactly how to ward it off with a katana, but unfortunately you are holding an angel food cake. Your katana reactions get in the way of figuring out what to do with the cake before the impact.

-- BetsyHanesPerry, all too conscious nowadays

AngelFoodCake? doesNotUnderstand: #asKatana?

Just know that when you feel ExtremelyConsciousIncompetence?, you are facing something that few people ever want to face and most people avoid whenever possible: an opportunity to grow. There is pride in that.

A few observations:

1. When you reach UnconsciousCompetence in (for example) programming, then it becomes very difficult to teach what you are doing. It's a state of mind rather than a conscious thought process. If you go read Kent's comments scattered around this wiki, you will notice that it's very difficult for him to describe what he's doing, because he's not really *doing* anything. So he tells you weird things like "go smell the code" <grin> (sorry Kent)

I agree. I was tutoring a friend in math once, and I was unable to decompose the path I took to a solution, because it was something that I just knew, and could not see the individual steps anymore -- Pete Hardie

Recently, I've been in the position of having to mentor other programmers, and have tried with some difficulty to express certain concepts and practices that I follow and don't have words for. I find that the act of teaching is learnable, and that finding a way to explain the "unexplainable" is quite valuable, producing new terms and distinctions that help the teacher take his/her own practice to a higher level. Often, once the words are found, it's possible to find out who else has already described the concept and what more they have to say. IMO, successful teaching is the act of steering the student to tell you what you wish him/her to know.

Not being able to teach somebody something may point to UnconsciousIncompetence as well though. Very often I find the process of trying to teach someone something increases my understanding of the problem, or perhaps lets me look at it from a different angle.

2. UnconsciousCompetence is really a matter of stepping back. You have to put your conscious, rational self outside of the thing you are doing. This is really hard to describe - I think it's a ZenThing?.

3. Often the best way to achieve this is to stop trying. Here's a great quote about how to learn to play music quickly:

....You cannot achieve speed by speedy practice. The only way to get fast is to be deep, wide awake, and slow. When you habitually zip through your music, your ears are crystallizing in sloppiness." ....Pray for the patience of a stonecutter. ....Pray to understand that speed is one of those things you have to give up - like love - before it comes flying to you through the back window." ('The Listening Book' by W.A. Mathieu)

-- AnthonyLander

This talk of UnconsciousCompetence applied both to programming and music reminds me of being "in the zone" -- more formally described as MentalStateCalledFlow. MentalStateCalledFlow seems to be present in all the really great achievements of the human race, which is interesting as it seems to be the state in which we are least aware of what we are doing... -- Canis

That's because conscious awareness is focused on where problems are being solved. When you're maximally self-aware, the problem is internal -- you're most self-aware when you are actually in one of your mind's exception handlers, rather than in the main business logic.

That's a great quote by W. Mathieu above (wonder if we're related), but it's a little misleading. It's perfect advice for someone who's playing fast but out of control, because it reveals the secret of regaining control. However, if you never play fast, you will never be able to play fast.

UnconsciousCompetence is an optimized, but brittle state. It's great as long as the conditions for its acquisition don't change, but it's horrible when they do change. I used to achieve UC in piano playing while practicing at home. In recital, the added stimulus of stage fear disrupted the delicate capability I was holding onto, and rendered me incapable. Without the conscious component to fall back on, I was doomed. I had one memorable experience like this at about the age of twelve, then pretty soon gave up performance.. for good.

UnconsciousCompetence is an optimized form because it frees our consciousness to other tasks, relegating what we've learned to habit. It leads to the emergence of negative authority ("power"), because it leaves you in a state of "just do it because it's right" non-reasoning. I'm not arguing that it's bad to get to that level of total competence, but I am saying that it's a good idea to look at the score once and a while and have a reasonable backup plan for any competence that will be challenged.

-- WaldenMathews (failed musician)

One way to interpret the Mathieu quote is that it is important to think about the individual notes and to be precise when playing them. Speed and skill comes not from just moving your fingers as fast as you can (which leads to sloppiness), but from playing each note deliberately.

Are there words for the different states of (a) ConsciousCompetence? and (b) UnconsciousCompetence coupled with detached conscious observation and analysis of what one is doing (the "Zen-thing" referred to above)? I think (b) is the thing that lets one be a good doer, a good learner, and a good teacher.

-- KrisJohnson (another failed musician, who hasn't given up)

This reminds me of driving. When I was first learning (on a manual transmission), I stalled the car a lot because I had no idea what I was doing. Later I learned that the car stalled because I wasn't giving it enough gas. Then I could drive. All of this happened over the span of a few months, probably. Many years later, the car sometimes occurs like an extension of my self. (Similarly, when I'm programming InTheZone, my thoughts and logic are going directly into the system, and my hands on the keyboard are a mere implementation detail.) Occasionally my mind may drift off, and when I come back, I find that I'm driving two lanes over from where I was. The part of me that shifted lanes knew exactly what it was doing, but didn't consider it important enough to interrupt the rest of me to let me know it was doing it.

Is this kind of UnconsciousCompetence brittle? On rare occasions, taking a familiar path to a new destination yields a missed exit, but I suppose that would fall under ConsciousIncompetence? -- it was a new route, and once I'd done it wrong I knew what was wrong with it. -- JoshuaJuran

According to my memory of first-year Psychology, this kind of UnconsciousCompetence is very brittle. It's an efficient way of performing a familiar task, such as driving. However, if the task becomes unfamiliar (say someone leaps into the road in front of you), you require more time to snap back into a state of ConsciousCompetence? to deal with the problem than you would if you weren't driving unconsciously. Driving to a new destination doesn't make the process of driving different, just the process of navigation. (And I know that I have, on a number of occasions, snapped out of unconscious navigation and found myself on the road halfway to work, when I was trying to go somewhere else). -- CharlesMiller

In his book ThingsThatMakeUsSmart? DonaldNorman talks about two kinds of consciousness: reflective and experiential. Experiential consciousness is the passive, reactive state of UnconsciousCompetence shown by drivers, athletes, musicians and the like. Reflective consciousness on the other hand is the active act of doing something (I have also heard these referred to as 'alpha' and 'beta' modes of consciousness).

Being able to enter experiential consciousness while doing a task is the result of thousands of hours practice and training. While in this state your mind just 'knows what to do', something highly related to the MentalStateCalledFlow. The brittleness of experiential consciousness (UnconsciousCompetence) is a result of it being only as wide as your experience. When you're forced into reflective consciousness due to unfamiliarity (the presence of an audience, the sudden blinking of a warning light, etc), you experience a mild DumpShock while your mind tries to adjust. This is why it is so important to train for failure. When the plane starts going down the last thing you want your pilot to be doing is thinking "What do I do now?". An immediate, ingrained reaction is what you want.

Personally I found it rather disturbing when programming shifted to an experiential activity (i.e. when I achieved a small level of UnconsciousCompetence). Suddenly when I tried to articulate how to design/implement something I drew a total blank. When I sat down and started working on it, however, it would come naturally. -- AaronCumming?

Rather than a steady escalation, shouldn't we aim for a steady pattern of alternating ConsciousCompetence? with UnconsciousCompetence?

You consciously do well at a given thing; for instance, because you're following patterns that are known to help. After a while, you become so competent that you're no longer conscious of why you're doing so well. This is precisely when you should reexamine the "why" : you are competent enough that you might know what contributed to UnconsciousCompetence, and what was merely a supporting ritual.

You can then practice ConsciousCompetence? - consciously following the (fewer) patterns of competence that remain after you have eliminated the supporting ritual - until you have gone over to UnconsciousCompetence again, and observe whether you are now better.

I am uncomfortable with any approach that suggests a linear progression. I believe that most of us operate at all four levels of competence simultaneously, and the difference between UnconsciousCompetence and UnconsciousIncompetence is very small indeed.

[I deleted my needless comment of affirmation]

The linear progression is an ideal, many of us stall in the state of Blissful Incompetence. -- Brian

There is an article at called ''Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments'' which is all about UnconsciousIncompetence and ConsciousCompetence?. They make the interesting observation that showing competent answers to incompetent people does not help them, as they are unable to determine that the answers are in fact competent.

-- JohnFarrell

John, thanks for the link. Interestingly the article says that a typical member of the bottom fourth of a sample in terms of a measured competence level rates his or herself as above average. -- DaveVanBuren

Link was out of date. Corrected. -- MatthewFarwell

The four states are given linearly here. I suggest two possible deviations.

UnconsciousCompetence is brittle, in the sense that the experiential version can ingrain itself as a habit. Then you're back at UnconsciousIncompetence. Thus the states could be circular. Note that this is different from the repetitive nature of ExtremelyConsciousIncompetence?.

I've heard descriptions of martial arts masters, where they choose to don some white/red belt. This indicates they are mere beginners. If that isn't ConsciousIncompetence?, I don't know what it is; and it is the last level. I can only express it as a realization that there is so much more they still can learn, compared to what they already know. But I am no such master in any art, so I could be hopelessly wrong.

-- Kero

This is great. I knew about the four levels, but I didn't realise until someone said it that UnconsciousIncompetence was brittle. I have found this. To be a bit deep for a minute, I think its one of the reasons I like programming and IT. Because IT changes so rapidly, you must change, otherwise you get left behind. I think that's a good thing. -- MatthewFarwell

I love this discussion. It reminds me of coaching my Son's U5, U6, and U7 soccer team.

For example kicking a Soccer ball watch someone kicking the soccer ball well and think it is easy try to kick the ball and realize you can't kick it well kick the ball well but, have to hesitate and think about it first kick the ball well without hesitation

-- honing your instincts or training your lizard brain

-- DouglasShimp

Just my 2 cents, but the 4th level of competence seems to be not just about repetition and practice leading to doing something quasi-automatically (driving or kicking a ball). I think there's more depth to these four stages. Namely, the 4th level seems most interesting when dealing with abstractions and concepts. When you can sense a direction, a pattern, and begin to go there without having words for it. You sense a design should be pushed in one direction, because by experience it "feels" that will work out. I'm not saying that's the only definition, just my interpretation.

The Japanese martial arts concept called ShuHaRi seems to approximate this concept.

Shu would be the Conscious Incompetence stage, when the student is starting out, Ha would be the midpoint between Conscious Competence and Unsconscious Competence, beginning to break from learning to doing and Ri, UnconsciousCompetence (and perhaps even an expression of MentalStateCalledFlow ).

-- MichaelParks?

Related: BecomingCompetent

CategoryMind CategoryLearningMethods

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