There’s a classic tool from learning psychology that I sometimes use with clients. It’s called the ladder of learning. This model says that whenever we learn a new skill, we always go through four steps:
- Unconscious incompetence: You are blissfully unaware that you are bad at something. You feel strongly in synch with your environment and confident in your abilities. This feels wonderful, but by the same token, you aren’t learning anything.
- Conscious incompetence: New information begins to intrude on your awareness, or you are beset with new challenges that demand attention. Your habitual methods for dealing with problems stop working. This is an extremely stressful situation, and it requires energy to overcome. People without the extra energy to weather these “ego crises” don’t reach this step; they will choose (wisely or foolishly) to remain ignorant of what they don’t want to know.
- Conscious competence: You eventually hit on methods for addressing the new challenges, but they are unfamiliar and you have to practice them. Over time, you can exhibit skillfulness but only with constant focus. Every time you practice, your neurons are firing and wiring together, making it easier to repeat the new behaviors.
- Unconscious competence: You have achieved mastery, and your new skills can be accessed on autopilot. After the proverbial 10,000 hours, your neural pathways for these new habits may develop myelin sheaths, making nerve conduction ultra fast. At this step, you are again in blissful harmony with your environment… until the next failure or surprise hits and then the learning process begins all over again.
My clients often like this tool because it’s a quick and easy way to frame where they are in relation to their goals. It explains the different emotions that come up at each step, and what to do to keep moving.
We all have tendencies to get stuck at the different steps above. Here are some thought patterns that might let you know you’re stuck:
- “I think I’ve really figured it all out.” (Stuck at Step 1)
- “The external situation or person needs to change, not me.” (Stuck at Step 2)
- “I’m getting better at this, but boy is it hard work. I think about giving up sometimes.” (Stuck at Step 3… time to create stronger systems!)
- “I think I’ve really figured it all out.” (Stuck at Step 4… which is also the same as Step 1)
We sometimes wish that life would be easy and perfect, but that actually would not be satisfying. Accepting and embracing change, and iteratively climbing the steps above, makes our realities bigger, and our lives richer.
We can celebrate big achievements and rest stops along the way, but over time the journey becomes its own reward.