The Four Stages of Competence and Your Ego

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

Whenever we are learning a new skill or working towards a new goal, we go through four stages of competence. It's how we learn and grow. It’s how our brain changes. What about your ego, that important part of you that identifies itself as you? Let’s explore how your ego may play a role in each stage.

Unconscious Incompetence: Standing here, you don’t understand or don’t know how to do something. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you aren’t aware of all that is available to you and you haven’t connected with the value of this new information. You may even be performing a task incorrectly and don’t know it. Your ego is clueless and probably pretty comfortable here. It’s generally not bruised until someone comes along and corrects you. Until then, depending on your ego, you may be an unconscious incompetent show-off.

Conscious Incompetence: Standing here, you are aware that you don’t understand or don’t know how to do this new skill. You realize that you must learn this new thing to become proficient at it. Standing here can feel like an uncomfortable itchy sweater to your ego. You have to surrender (accept) that you don’t know and step into what I call The Threshold, where the old energy is behind you and the new energy is in front of you. Time to choose where to step… backward or forwards? The direction you move will most likely have to do with your perspective of each, emotional regulation, cognitive agility, and the willingness to change what supports your ego.

Conscious Competence: Standing here, you understand and know how to do this new skill, but it requires focus and attention. This is where neuroplasticity (the ability for your brain to change) plays an important role. The more information you receive and the more you practice with focus, the more competent you become. This is the step that can be the most challenging for your ego. Standing here, you are likely to be the most self-critical. You may hear yourself say, “I should be better at this!” and “I can’t believe how long this is taking me,” or “I’m ready to give up!” A dose of patience and self-compassion will be helpful here. If you are incompetent in self-compassion, please message me.

Unconscious Competence: Standing here, you’ve practiced so much that you’ve become proficient at this understanding or new skill set and possibly be able to train or teach others. It’s no longer a novelty to you. Now you know your stuff! Maybe you’ve even become an expert, but how will your ego hold this competence, with humility and grace or arrogance and conceit? Will you use it to degrade and overpower or share and inspire?

Each stage is an important part of your learning process. Your experience in each stage depends on your perspective and how self-aware, self-critical and self-regulated you are. Each one a space of vulnerability, courage, and empowerment. Each one a teachable and coachable moment for yourself and others and each one an opportunity for your ego to define itself.

Adapted from Noel Burch, The Hierarchy of Competence model

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