Four Levels of Learning

Knowing the four levels of learning helps us adopting the growth mindset, keeping an open mind for new information, and developing new skills.

There are four levels of learning:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

Unconscious Incompetence

Have you heard about the Njerep language? Me neither. Your level on Njerep was unconscious incompetence. You didn’t even know that you were incompetent in Njerep. Until you read this paragraph. Now, you know that you’re incompetent in Njerep. That moved you to the level of conscious incompetent.

The Njerep language might not make a huge difference in your life, but I guarantee you there are a lot things that you and I don’t know right now that could make a huge difference in our lives. What we don’t know we don’t know can make a huge difference in our lives. That’s why continuous learning is critical if you want to have a successful, satisfying life.

Conscious Incompetence

On this level, you already know that you’re incompetent on something. For example, you know that the Japanese language exists, but you probably can’t speak it. If you’re on that level, you’re on the level of conscious incompetence. You’re aware that you are incompetent on something.

Conscious Competence

On this level, you already learned the skill, but using it requires your conscious effort. This is what happens in the first few months of learning to drive a car. You needed to think what to do and what not to do in each situation. This is the level of conscious competence.

Unconscious Competence

After a few months of driving a car, you got to a point where you could drive without actually thinking about what to do next. In some cases, you might find yourself in an autopilot mode, almost unconscious, when driving a car. You might be thinking about an issue at work while driving and you might realize you’re already where you have to be without having paid any attention to the route. This is the level of unconscious competence.

 

Growth Mindset

Levels of learning help us incorporate the growth mindset. Growth mindset is the fundamental principle of personal development. It says that we can grow from our current skill level to a skill level that we aspire to. You can learn more about this topic from the book Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck.

Some of us look at a person who has already accomplished huge feats and get discouraged. This is fixed mindset. The fixed mindset is triggered by the huge gap between conscious incompetence and unconscious competence.

What fixed mindset people missing is that there is another level between conscious incompetence and unconscious competence. This is the level of conscious competence. Most successful people have gone through the process of going from conscious incompetence to conscious competence and then to unconscious competence. That takes a lot of studying and practice. And if you want to achieve success, that effort is worth it.

David and Goliath in our Minds

I like to mention my favorite book Thinking Fast and Slow here. I see some parallels between the System 1 and 2 and conscious competence and unconscious competence. System 1 is our autopilot mode. It’s strong but not intelligent. I like to call this system our Goliath. Getting a skill to this level is a huge advantage. This is the level of unconscious competence.

System 2 is our conscious mode. It’s intelligent but at the same time weak, lazy, energy consuming, and slow. I like to call this system our David. We need System 2 to go from conscious incompetence to conscious competence, and then to unconscious competence. This is hard, because our System 2 is weak, lazy, energy consuming, and slow. This is why you need self-discipline to move higher in the levels of learning.

Summary

In order to be successful in life, you have to develop a broad set of skills. In order to develop those skills, first you need to recognize that those skills exists and you lack those skills. That moves you from the first level to the second level.

On the second level, you spend conscious effort to develop a skill to get to the third level. Once you are on the third level, you keep practicing the skill until you can perform it in an autopilot mode, which is the fourth level.

Once you can perform a skill on the fourth level, you can perform it effortlessly. You can get into flow performing it. This is where you get the most results with the least amount of effort.

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.

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