Confident Incompetence

Published on August 19th, 2019

Most people are familiar with the 4 stages of mastery:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (e.g., "I don't know what I don't know.")
  2. Conscious incompetence (e.g., "I know what I don't know.")
  3. Conscious competence: (e.g., "I can succeed with conscious focus")
  4. Unconscious competence: (e.g., "I can succeed automatically")

Most of us are at some point along this path in every aspect of life. We may have achieved stage 4 in our career, but we're slogging through stages 2 and 3 when trying to learn a new hobby. Parenthood sometimes feels like a perpetual limbo of stages 1 through 3. And when you think you've made it to the finish line, everything changes and you are back to the beginning again!

One would think and hope that anyone could naturally progress through these steps, but there's a hidden trap. It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

...a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.[1]

That's a mouthful. A more straightforward descriptor is confident incompetence. A person hasn't quite become aware of their lack of knowledge and experience. They are also unlikely to have an accurate sense of what mastery is as well as their current progress towards it.

Confident incompetence is a place of purgatory. We may feel we are in stages 3 or 4, but we're really at stage 0. It takes self-awareness and humility to step into stages 1 and 2, where we have to admit we don't know. Only then will the motivation to learn and course-correct appear on the way towards actual mastery. However, confident incompetence can become its own, self-reinforcing loop. How can we admit we don't know something when we bullshit ourselves into believing that we already do? That's why it's a trap that can keep a person looping for years before they finally come to the place of a beginner's mind (a place to start the actual learning of skills and gaining the necessary experience and wisdom on the path to mastery).

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.