The Cycle of Competence

I once worked as a Customer Service Representative in the Call Centre of an insurance company. Every batch of new recruits was assigned a trainer and ours was a gorgeous man called Neil. I had the biggest crush on him, which was surprising as I’d never thought I could ever find myself attracted to the vanilla brothers. I’m more of a ‘the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice’ kinda gal. Bonus if he’s team #beardgang.

*creepy eyebrow wiggle*

So, naturally, it came as a shock when I found myself attracted to a beardless Caucasian. But Neil was lovely. He was highly intelligent and so cheeky…he was also very married, so the crush died a very natural death once I found out because, well…we don’t roll like that in these streets. No siree. However, I still admired his intellect and even though it’s been years since we worked together, there were things I learned from him as my trainer which have stuck, lessons which I apply till today. In this post, I’ll be sharing one of such—something called ‘The Cycle of Competence’.

Note: I actually believed I came up with that title until I did some research. Alas, the Cycle of Competence (also called the Conscious Competence Ladder) is a concept that has been in existence from as far back as the seventies. It was developed by someone named Noel Burch, an employee of Gordon Training International. Hm! Ah well…


The Cycle of Competence 

Cycle of competence oma's serendipity


The cycle of competence pertains to the mental progress of a person from a level of incompetence to that of competence. It occurs in four stages—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally, unconscious competence.

Sounds like lyrics from a complicated rap song? Not to worry. Imma break it down.


Unconscious Incompetence

This is a stage of being unaware of your depth of lack of knowledge of a thing. Have you ever watched someone do something from afar and scoff, ‘that’s child’s play!’ even when you’ve never done it before or even attempted to? Then you try it and realise it’s not as straightforward as you’d initially thought? Yup! Unconscious incompetence. You don’t know how ignorant you are about it until you try it. Like driving—before most people ever get behind the steering wheel to drive for the first time, they’re thinking, ‘Errrr…is driving not just clutch, break, accelerate?’ That is until they begin to learn and see that it’s a whole different ball game where a number of things are involved simultaneously.

Same with things such as public speaking or singing to an audience or sewing or attempting computer-aided design—basically, anything you’ve never actually done before that may seem so easy when you watch someone else do it. Then you try, and understand that it’s not. That stage of being oblivious of your ignorance, that’s unconscious incompetence.


Conscious Incompetence

Ah…a humbling stage, indeed. Now you know that you don’t know; you know how bad you are at something and it’s clear the task isn’t as easy as you’d initially envisaged. You become aware of your own ignorance; i.e., you are conscious of your incompetence. You’ve seen that baking a cake isn’t just throwing butter, sugar, some eggs and flour into a bowl and mixing together. You’ve seen that vlogging isn’t just walking about with a camera and speaking to it. So called ‘basic things’ like applying false eyelashes would make you wonder if you need a degree to do it successfully. The stage of Conscious Incompetence will teach you to never again say, “Is it not ‘just’…?” As I said earlier, a humbling stage.


Conscious Competence

If you don’t give up at the stage of Conscious Incompetence, through constant practice, you inevitably start to become better at a task. It gets easier enough for you to do without help and you are more fluid in your execution. Your improvement is obvious to others and to you; however, you would still need your absolute concentration while performing the task as you are yet to become used to doing it. You would still need to apply conscious effort to successfully carry out tasks and may need to mentally calculate every step before administering it.

For instance, your need to refer to your cookbook each time you want to make lasagne or banana bread may be reduced; and you may no longer have to search on google,  ‘how to tie a Van Wijk knot’ each time you need to…well…tie a Van Wijk knot. However, you would still need to think and focus your attention while performing these activities.

In this stage, you’re good but it may be a bit premature for you to think you’re that good.


Unconscious Competence

With consistent practice, a certain task becomes so effortless. You’ve done it so many times, it has become a part of you—second nature, so to speak and doing it is a breeze for you. You can perform the activities with your eyes closed, even in your sleep. Every woman wants you to design her wedding dress. You’re the barber every guy wants to get a haircut from. You can now charge an arm and a leg for your services and people pay without batting an eyelid because you always ‘bring it’. You’re someone in your field that people aspire to be and, my goodness, when you take a step everybody hears ‘BANG!’ And the best part? You easily do it without overly mentally tasking yourself or paying too much attention while at it.

You would even be able to combine the skill you’re competent at with something else—hello brethren who smoke or use their cell phones while driving. *side-eye*


Axe and wood oma's serendipity


It’s a great thing to reach a stage of unconscious competence in any skill. You put more value on yourself; you stop selling yourself short and make sure no one undervalues you because you know you deliver. All day, everyday. You know how much work you have put in and all you’ve sacrificed to get to where you are. You know the amount of labour that goes into you producing excellent results.

There’s a small problem that can arise at this stage, though—the issue of pride and complacency. It’s easier to act cocky and that cockiness can subsequently make you think you don’t need to become better. You may be tempted to stop improving your craft or further developing yourself. There’s also the risk of boredom. The aim is to master a skill but to also leave room for additional growth and to come up with innovative ways of accomplishing tasks. Your mastery of a skill and your need for additional improvement could even create brand new skills which would need to be learned…and so, the cycle starts all over again.

So, there you have it—the four stages in the Cycle of Competence. The purpose of this post is to remind you that no one ever starts off as an expert in a skill. Everyone is a beginner, a learner at some point. Therefore, whenever you feel frustrated each time a task seems difficult to grasp, be encouraged to keep at it. Also be reminded that this mastery can’t happen overnight. It takes time, consistent practice and patience to reach high competence. So, be gentle with yourself; your dedication would pay off eventually.


Signing out from my #beardgang-loving corner,



11 thoughts on “The Cycle of Competence

  1. Nice Ihuoma. Funny thing is, from unconscious competence you can become unconsciously incompetent. Maybe as a result of the cockiness and complacency, you think you know, but end up realising that you don’t know. Bang! Back to square one.

    I have some church brothers who are part of the beard gang association. Make I drop numbers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You definitely can go back to unconscious incompetence from a stage of unconscious competence. Even lack of practice and application of a mastered skill could definitely send you back to unconscious incompetence.

      Hmmm… are the brothers fine? And shouldn’t they be the ones chasing me, not me getting their numbers? Lol!


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