Have you ever observed someone whose excellence seemed effortless? You may not imagine yourself in this category, but we exhibit moments of effortless excellence all the time. Consider a task as simple as driving. When we first learn how to drive, the entire process seems bewilderingly challenging. I learned to drive in midtown Manhattan during the morning rush and could not conceive how my brave instructor expected me to change lanes without slowing down while whipping past taxis and buses on 5th Avenue. More than a million miles later, I don’t hesitate to make that same drive while, at the same time, adjusting the radio, carrying a conversation, and actively questioning what I’m doing on Museum Mile during rush hour.
The journey from roadkill to Road King begins with a basic inability to grasp how difficult the act of driving really is. Once a neophyte gets behind the wheel, however, the complexities of the task become painfully apparent. Only through active coaching and practice does student develop the knowledge, skills, awareness, and confidence to pass a road test and earn a driver’s license. Fast forward a couple of years and most experienced motorists become so comfortable behind the wheel that they actively seek out distractions while driving.
Competence is a journey, one that generally progresses through very specific states. Back in the 1970s, staff at Gordon Training International codified the four learning stages each of us goes through on the path from obliviousness to, with luck and effort, mastery:
1. Unconscious Incompetence
You do not understand or know how to do something. In fact, you may not necessarily even recognize that you do not not understand or know how to do something.
2. Conscious Incompetence
You recognize that you do not not understand or know how to do something and are now working to rectify that deficit.
3. Conscious Competence
You understand or know how to do something as long as you concentrate or work at it.
4. Unconscious Competence
You understand or know how to do something so well that you do not need to concentrate at all. At this point, your mastery is such that you can execute that task while working on others.
The ability to excel on highly complex standardized tests like the SAT and ACT tends to fall neatly into these four stages:
1. You don’t know how to earn your best scores on the exam or even know what makes the test so tough.
2. You recognize what makes the test so tough, but you’re still not able to overcome its difficulties.
3. You’ve learned how to answer more questions in every section in the allotted time, but your performance is inconsistent.
4. You’ve learned to consistently earn your best scores from section to section and test to test.
Success in any endeavor begins with the recognition of how much a beginner needs to know and do to improve. From there, steady effort and deliberate practice can take a dedicated learner from incompetence to conscious competence. But the highest levels of achievement are gated behind an additional level of performance, where the knowledge, skills, and strategies for success are so deeply ingrained that they become automatic. How will you know when you’ve achieved this level of unconscious competence? Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.