Conscious incompetence: On knowing what we don’t know…

Posted by on Apr 10, 2022 in Blog | 6 comments

accident disaster steam locomotive train wreck

It was only a few sentences in a podcast I recently listened to, but it set me thinking. The speaker suggested there are four stages in the journey towards competence:

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence

An example may help to ground this.

Let’s say you don’t know how to drive a car. As you watch people driving you think, “How hard can that be? Of course I could do that.” But then you hop into the drivers seat and as the car jerks and jolts along the road, you conclude that you are many driving lessons away from competence. You started out being unconscious of your incompetence, but quickly move into the second stage of conscious incompetence, where you are acutely aware that when you want to change lanes you need to look in your rear and side mirrors to be sure it is safe to do so, while you must also remember to indicate your plan, while also adjusting your speed to allow for the gap between the cars in the other lane – well its a lot to process at once and you are conscious that you are not yet up to it. You are conscious of your incompetence.

You then have a few lessons and start to master the key skills. Actually, you can do a three point turn, reverse park and manage a hill start. When you drive you think, “this is tricky, but I can do it.” You are developing conscious competence. In a while you will be at the done and dusted stage which is reached when you realise that you changed lanes but don’t remember having done so – for you are now unconsciously competent, automatically doing the right thing without even thinking about it.

Does this matter and if so, why?

To me it speaks of a posture of humility towards learning, and a bent towards curiosity and ongoing enquiry into the complexities of life?

There are stages of learning, and we aren’t automatically experts on everything. Humility is a virtue rarely seen. I’ve been amazed at how many people consider themselves experts on solutions to world problems, the truth about vaccines, and what politicians should do, often on the basis of – at best – a few dodgy youtube clips. The unconscious incompetence can be painful to listen to – especially if you have a grasp of the topic and immediately see how much is being ignored or overlooked.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for free speech and open discussion. But when someone speaks outside of their area of competence and training, and is quickly dismissive of of those who are experts in their field – well, unconscious incompetence is embarrassing to watch. And it is not only scientists who have to put up with this. I’ve done a fair amount of leading in my time, and have listened to many people say what they think should be done and why their leaders don’t know what they are doing and I’ve thought to myself, “Not so sure you really know what you are talking about. There are a fair few complexities that you are overlooking.” Likewise, as a theologian I have met many people who are very dogmatic about things they would have been far wiser to be silent about – but that doesn’t stop them.

Why do we find it so hard to say, “I don’t know very much about this”?

This is not only relevant in the realm of opinions and attitudes.

Faith and following Jesus is also a journey that passes through stages. We often say that people should be loving and be willing to forgive others. Why do we assume it will come naturally and easily? We are often best served if we assume we might have been unconsciously incompetent and review our actions and be willing to learn and grow through each experience. An attitude of “I could be wrong” or “there might be a better way to do this” will see us grow more quickly than an assumption that we must be right.

Of course following Jesus should be a journey where genuine progress is made along the way. I don’t know about you, but I long to reach the stage where I am unconsciously competent – and my reflex is to respond as Jesus would, because love, wisdom and compassion have been so integrated into my being that saying and doing the right things comes a lot more naturally.

Until then I often have to stop and ask, “Lord, what is the right thing to do now – because I really don’t know.” Remarkably often God answers that prayer, guiding me not to do what comes instinctively, but to pause, reflect more deeply on the example of Jesus, and then to act differently.

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Feel free to reproduce this with acknowledgement or to forward it to any who might find it helpful.

6 Comments

  1. Caption for the photo: “Ah! Then this one must be the brake!”

    • Love it!!

  2. Very true, Brian, thank you.

  3. Beautifully explained and as always, a timely message. As a classroom teacher, I’ve often wondered whether we teachers are feeding this sense of know-it-all in our students because we are told that we can’t ‘fail’ performance, we just have to cocoon the child with various explanations in the hope that she will try harder, which rarely happens. I’ve often found it difficult to encourage my students to embrace their failures as an understanding that there’s always room for improvement. I believe that when we start with this understanding of there always is room for improvement that we truly see our imperfections, even when we think we’ve mastered something!

    • Yes, I wonder if we don’t do them the disservice of providing short term pleasure (that’s great), at the cost of longer term resilience (there is still a fair way to go on that, but you can do it -persevere). Thanks Sarah.

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