“At Least You’re Aware of Your Incompetence” (4 Stages of Learning)

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”   Winston Churchill

After I gave a talk recently I was pulled aside by a colleague. He pointed out that the way I expressed one topic had the potential to put off one of the groups present.  To my credit I was consciously aware of the problem during the talk but unfortunately I couldn’t stop myself.

My colleague’s response… “At  least you’re aware of your incompetence!

He didn’t mean I was generally incompetent.  Instead his point was that the first step in learning is to become aware of a limitation in your knowledge or capability.

This post tackles two questions about learning.  Beyond awareness of incompetence what are the stages of learning?  Why can learning or changing behavior be particularly difficult?

4 Stages of Learning

Stage 1 – Unaware and Ineffective

The first stage is not knowing what you don’t know; what some call the “unknown unknowns“.

You are BOTH unaware and ineffective (or incapable) in a specific piece of knowledge or skill.  (To be clear, this is not about general incompetence.)

For example, you are perhaps unaware of recursive function calls, or the differences between being a developer and a team leader, or ways of effectively communicating to a non-technical audience, or that latest theory on creating regression models for binary dependent variables.  The point is you start out unaware.

Stage 2 – Aware and Ineffective

To be conscious that you are ignorant of the facts is a great step to knowledge.”  Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister, 1874 -1880)

The second stage and the first step forward is becoming aware of something you don’t know.

Being open to learning helps and it’s said that you can learn something every day if you pay attention.  [Aside: doesn’t that seem to be a rather low expectation?]

But becoming aware of the opportunity to learn something is not the same as having learned it.  It’s like the light bulb appears above your head but it’s not on.

How to become aware of something to learn?  Read a book, the web, a blog.  Observe, look and learn.

But often somebody else will bring a learning opportunity to your attention: a friend, relative, colleague, teacher, manager, mentor, some random dude at a conference … whatever.

You have choices… Are you open to the idea?  Do you agree?  Do you want to act on this awareness?

And decisions… Is it something to learn now or later?  How would you go about learning?

Stage 3 – Aware and Effective

And so you begin learning and the proverbial light bulb over your head begins to glow brighter.

Learning — getting from stage 2 to stage 3 — may be quick or may take years.  The pace can depend on many factors, not least the difficulty of the matter and your level of motivation to learn.  The process might be enjoyable or tough, easy or hard, personally rewarding or deeply challenging (or both), and so on.

The process of learning can be very different depending upon what you are learning and what change that requires.  Changing behavioral habits is quite different from developing programming knowledge; a topic I return to below.

In the early period of your growing effectiveness you must remain aware / conscious of applying your learning — is not natural or automatic. It requires your conscious effort to perform and often this requires commitment and self-discipline.

Stage 4 – Unaware and Effective

Just be the ball.Caddyshack (1980)

As you apply your learnt ability the performance increasingly becomes unconscious. You’ve reached Stage 4 where you are unaware and effective.

You’re a natural!

Since you’re not thinking about what you’re doing your performance can be faster — sometimes much faster.

Your confidence grows.

And achieving natural performance is a pre-requisite to working in The Zone, the place of high concentration, productivity and creativity.

Acquiring and Applying Knowledge

The process of learning varies with the nature of what you are learning.  

Think back.  Learning software recursion requires time to absorb a new concept. For many developers, their existing knowledge of mathematical self-reference can be adapted to software recession.  For “abstract-oriented programmers” (or see Myers-Briggs Intuitive Type) the learning will tend to be conceptual.  For fact-driven programmers ((or see Myers-Briggs Sensing Type)) the learning will tend to be best by example (e.g. implementing factorials, tower of Hanoi and other CompSci favorites).

Acquiring your knowledge of programming is an ongoing process of building knowledge upon knowledge. For many developers, the ideal job requires learning something new to succeed on each project.  The “Not Invented Here” syndrome comes, in part, because you learn much more from building something yourself than from adapting somebody else’s work.

There are important differences between learning knowledge and learning to apply that knowledge in the “real world”.  As with any intellectual gift, the developer who tops a computer science course is not guaranteed success in a development job.  The Far Side captured this brilliantly…

The Far Side - Midvale School for the Gifted

Behavioral Change

Habits are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously. Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. (Wikipedia definition)

With our behaviors as programmers being largely subconscious, changing behavior requires a different approach than learning the skills and concepts of programming.

The net overflows with advice on changing behavior (bad habits are hot topics — eating, drinking, smoking, coffee, exercise and procrastination).  The following is typical guidance on how to change a habit.

  • Breaking a habit takes time.  It might take weeks, months or a year.  Be patient.
  • Be aware.  Changing a habit requires conscious attention to change as explained in the four stages of change above.  This attention is not general awareness — “I sometimes procrastinate” — but specific awareness — “I am procrastinating NOW”.
  • Retain commitment.   You need the discipline and determination over time to monitor your behavior and apply new behavior.
  • Be Consistent.  For larger changes seek continual day-by-day improvement.  As Mark Twain put it “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

Unlike acquiring knowledge, there is an emotional dimension to changing behavior. Sometimes, recognizing and accepting the need to change a behavior may require facing up to the previous negative impact of that behavior.  Likewise, the “aware of ineffective” stage of learning can be frustrating as you become consciously aware of the behavior but are not yet able to effect change.  Also, changing behavior can feel like changing a little of who you are or trigger concern about how others will react to the change.

It helps to not to over-think the change, to Be Realistic and Stay Positive by recognizing the benefits of growth.

Learning to play a sport at a high level can take years of practice with missteps, some pain and some sacrifice.

Learning to write a multi-threaded, distributed, high-availability “whatever” can take years of dedicated learning.

Likewise, changing behaviors learned years ago can take time . But do try to appreciate each step forward and avoid getting hung up over missteps.


Andrew H – Psygrammer


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