The four stages of competence are psychological states we all go through when learning a new skill.

I’ll break it down for you using the example of learning how to brush my teeth.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

When I was probably around three years old it was time to learn how to brush my teeth. Before this I didn’t know anything about brushing teeth or that I needed to do it. The learning began with my mother brushing my teeth for me as I watched in the mirror.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

I knew what I didn’t know but still didn’t know how to do it.

After a few weeks of mom brushing my teeth I now knew what I needed to know about the process but was still terrible at it, needing help every time but doing some of it myself.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

I was better at this new skill but still had to think about what I was doing.

A few more weeks passed and I was able to brush my own teeth with no help. It was a task that still required a lot of concentration but I no longer needed my mom to help me.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

The skill was so ingrained that I wasn’t aware I was using it when I was using it.

Now that I am a grown up I can brush my teeth while having a conversation, or putting dishes away or thinking about my day. I no longer have to concentrate on the process. I am a unconsciously competent at brushing my teeth. Yipee!


Learning about these stages was a game changer for me. Somewhere in my development I had decided that I was terrible at every new thing I tried so why bother trying anything new.

For some reason I thought I should be good at everything the first time I tried it. Weird.

Turns out I am supposed to be terrible at new things upon first learning them. The trick is to stick with it until eventually unconscious competence is reached.

Emotional Competence

I began to apply these stages to my emotional life about two years ago. For me it was all about learning how to manage my thoughts about things that occurred throughout my day with a modicum of competence. Becoming aware of my thoughts and starting to question if they were valid was an interesting exercise to undertake as it was, and still is, truly baffling to discover what my mind is thinking and I accept as true.

As I have said in a previous post your mind is pretty much running the show, thinking thoughts you may not even be aware of but you act on regardless.

After working on this conscious competence thing for a while I recently had an experience that showed me my work was paying off.

Mountain Bike Love

I love to ride my Mountain Bike. It puts a big smile on my face and leaves me feeling happy and accomplished.

When I first got my bike six years ago there was a definite learning curve as I began to take it out on the local trails.

The first year I had it I fell at least once on every single ride.

The second year I fell once on every other ride.

The third year I fell once or twice the whole season.

By the fourth year I felt confident that I could handle almost any intermediate to expert trail out there.

Not only was I falling less frequently, I noticed my attitude towards the falls was also changing.

In those first three years when I would fall it would define the entire ride. Usually it was 10 seconds out of at least 90 minutes but that was I what I would remember from that ride. Not the beauty that surrounded me, not the 89 minutes that I wasn’t falling but that 10 seconds of the fall.

Then one day in the fourth year I was on a ride and I fell for no good reason. I was on a flat part cruising along and the next thing I know I’m on the ground and in pain because, of course, my elbow landed on the one rock in the vicinity.

I cried, I cursed, I may have actually yelled something like, “This ride sucks!” in my frustration and then something miraculous happened.

A little voice inside my head said, “This ride does not suck. The colors of the turning trees are beautiful, the temperature is perfect and I feel strong. This was just 10 seconds of suck in a hour of beauty.” That snapped me right out of my pity party and got me back on my bike.

I had to keep reminding myself of this as I continued the ride. My mind kept creeping to the thought that the ride sucked because I fell but then I would redirect it to all the reasons why it didn’t suck. By the time I got to my car I was feeling accomplished and happy, even though my elbow hurt.

That was a few years ago and I feel like I’ve been working in that stage of conscious competence since then. Occasionally falling and then having to remind myself the fall did not define the ride.

Last week I was once again out riding my bike and I fell hard…right on a rock.

The trail I was on has 4 challenging switchbacks at the beginning and I had made the first 3 but fell on the 4th and hardest one. It really hurt but I bounced right up, picked up my bike, put the chain back on and continued on my way.

Here is the beautiful thing, here is where all my hard work paid off.

My thoughts as I continued up the trail were all about how I had made 3 out of the 4 switchbacks and how awesome that was. I never even went to that place of the ride sucking because I fell. I didn’t have to keep redirecting my mind because it wasn’t going anywhere negative.

By the time I got back to my car, an hour later, I had forgotten all about falling. It wasn’t until I got into my car and felt a pain in the back of my leg as I sat that I remembered I had taken a fall at all.

This would never have happened if I hadn’t decided to start managing my thoughts and then quit after two or three tries because it wasn’t working. I would still be out there thinking every ride that I fell on was the worst ride ever and missing out on so much enjoyment. I may have even stopped riding my bike completely and that would be a sad, sad thing. (I do truly love my bike and where it takes me!)

My point is there is an elegant simplicity in learning how to manage your mind. Becoming aware of your thoughts is eye-opening and presents an exciting challenge to see if you can train your mind to think different thoughts that actually serve you instead of holding you back.

This is what my coaching focuses on. If you would like to hear more, I would love to talk your ear off about it! Click the button below and schedule a 30 minute consultation with me. I look forward to it.

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