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How We Learn Anything New, and the Importance of Focusing on Practice

When learning something new — no matter what it is — many of us move through the same levels of competence. In this post, we'll look at this progression of learning, and discuss how a focus on practice can lead to a more sustained level of self-awareness.

This post was inspired by a dose of awesomeness shared with me by one of my Stanford Web Services teammates (thanks, Megan). It came in the form of a talk titled How Do We Design Designers, given at the 2014 UX Immersion Mobile Conference. In his talk, Jared Spool (@jmspool) considered what makes a great designer and summarizes the similarities in the journeys that great designers often take.

While Spool’s talk focuses primarily on designers, many of the useful nuggets he shared can be applied to almost any field of work. In fact, throughout his talk, he draws on many examples from other professions to better illustrate his point. In this post, I’ve leaned on generic examples to help make the ideas stick.

Levels of competence when learning anything

Many consider Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky respectively the greatest basketball and hockey players of all time. Yet even having demonstrated amazing skill, unmatched commitment, and a deep understanding of their craft, neither was or is very successful as a professional coach or owner.  

How can two people with such incredible ability struggle in directing and teaching?

In his talk, Spool discusses some of the findings of researchers who studied why many esteemed doctors make poor medical instructors. It turns out that there is a largely universal model to learning anything new that many of us go through:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence — we actually don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t know that we don’t know what we’re doing
  2. Conscious Incompetence — we don’t know what we’re doing, but we understand that we don’t know what we’re doing
  3. Conscious Competence — we know how to do the stuff we’re doing, and we can pay attention to what we’re doing
  4. Unconscious Competence — we can do things without thinking about it; we’ve become amazing at it

After identifying and analyzing the model, researchers found that individuals who are unconsciously competent often don't make for good instructors, because in order to be a good instructor, you must remember what it was like to be consciously competent, which many unconsciously competent individuals can no longer do.

Most of us have seen this in one form or another.

If you ask a friend who’s a great cook how they knew to add more salt to a sauce when they did, they may reply with, “I just knew” or “It just needed more.” If you ask a mechanic who’s been practicing for years how they knew your car’s drive belt was three weeks away from giving out, they may reply with, “Can’t you tell? I mean look right there.” Or, returning to our sports example, if a reporter asks Jordan or Gretzky how they knew to attack a defender in the way that they did, they may reply with, “I just did. I could tell he was favoring his right side and was tired.”

Too often this is the problem: those who are unconsciously competent, even though they’re regularly right, can’t communicate what it is they’re doing and/or why they’re doing it in a way that helps another learn the skill. What if we could reach the level of capability associated with those who are unconsciously competent, while not forgetting how we learned to do what we do?

Spool suggests that there is another way that we can look at the transitions in levels of competence when learning something new that may help us in reaching that goal.

Literacy to fluency to mastery

Let's look at the first two levels of competence. Our move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is often a result of the fact that we’re becoming more literate in a given area. We begin learning more about what makes one successful, what the best practices are, and what vocabulary is used to describe the work. At one point in time, the words dribble, shoot, pass, screen, post, and rebound were new to Jordan. He learned what the words meant by doing and by studying.

Often becoming more fluent in a given area commonly sparks our next transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. We’re able to speak a shared language with others in the field, which increases our ability to communicate ideas. At this stage, Gretzky was likely able to discuss the best ways of handling a two-man advantage and was thoughtfully aware of what he needed to do to make an amazing assist.

Finally, our move from conscious competence to unconscious competence is due to our mastery in a given area. We’ve reached the level of craftsmanship that we set out trying to achieve. You wouldn’t have to search very long to find clips of Jordan and Gretzky in their prime showing off their level of mastery. Their physical reactions are natural and not the result of the thoughtful (even if only momentary) planning associated with conscious competence.

Mastery through practice

No one master — not Jordan or Gretzky, our friends who cook, nor our mechanics — moved through the levels of literacy, fluency, or mastery when developing their skills without practice. What we’re trying to accomplish by doing and practicing is to move through these stages and reach the next level.

If we think in terms of practice, it makes it easier to identify what it takes to get from one stage to the next. Jordan first needed to learn what a jump shot was before recognizing what a good and a not-so-good one looked like, and he needed to recognize that before developing the jump shot form that he had so much success with.

Be mindful about what you are practicing, noting (physically or mentally) what works and what doesn’t. If we can build more self-awareness around our practice, we are in a better position to become mentors to those lower down in the levels of competence. Look for your equivalent to a jump shot in what you do and enjoy fine-tuning your skills as you move through the stages. While there’s no foolproof process for combating the challenge of communicating your level of mastery, thinking in terms of practice and remembering what it was like on your journey of mastery can lead to better results for you and those around you.

Final word

There’s always a person a level ahead of you. Seek them out and learn from them what you can. You may find that they are often anxious to help others develop. At the very least, they’d likely be willing to provide you with ideas of how you can practice your skills.

Similarly, as you continue to grow, there will always be someone at the level behind you. Inspire them where you can, and do your best to remember what it was like to be where they are.

The more of us who contribute to a culture of learning, the better our industry becomes.

I encourage all of our readers to pass on inspiring work or developmental-related pieces of work to those who may benefit or find it exciting. Speaking from experience, receiving a recommended read, watch, or listen can have a very positive impact.

Jared Spool’s full talk can be viewed on the UX Mobile Immersion site