Your appetite for learning says a lot about you. Not in how others perceive you, necessarily (although it might). On an inner level, it is a proxy for how engaged you are; how curious and exploratory and conscious you are about the world and your place in it. Your attitude to learning says a great deal about where you are and how you are feeling about yourself and about life.
There is a useful learning model that illustrates the consequences of this. It has four levels, which starts with unconscious incompetence. In other words, when we are unconsciously incompetent we don’t know, we don’t know we don’t know, and we very possibly don’t care.
The next level is conscious incompetence. This is the dangerous one. It reflects the fact that we don’t know how to do something, and we know that we don’t know. Our inability and incompetence has entered awareness; that might be the result of a harsh confrontation with reality or the gradual dawning realization that there is far more to learn on a topic than we were previously aware. The choice here is in what we do about it. Do we try to build our competence or understanding, or do we continue to live with ignorance (and the nagging awareness that now comes along with it)?
Choosing to do something about it means trying to learn and develop understanding, perspective or skills. This sometimes doesn’t come easily or quickly, and we will often struggle with something before we figure it out. Our first efforts may not be pretty or adroit, and we may get genuinely frustrated with our ability to grasp what others seem to do so naturally. Eventually, though, with a lot of effort and focus and concentration, we can passably work through whatever we are learning. We have entered the realm of conscious competence; we can do something, but we need to think about it really hard.
Eventually, if we persevere, we attain that level of natural fluidity that we so admired in others when we were trying to learn. We don’t have to think or consciously focus; we are able to apply our knowledge or execute our skills or make something happen, and it all flows easily and smoothly. Once we attain unconscious competence, we have attained a sufficient level of mastery that it doesn’t demand all of our focus and attention to accomplish.
We can’t become unconsciously competent at everything. We may want to, and we may try, but that’s a fools errand. For everything that we know, there will be far more that we don’t. The art is in the picking and choosing, of focussing on those things that we do seek genuine competence in, and figuring out how to accomplish them. It is also about being comfortable with the choices of what we allow ourselves to be incompetent in. I am, for example, consciously incompetent about golf. I am an abysmal golfer, and being any better than I am would require far more effort and focus than I choose to invest. I am perfectly content with the fact that I will probably never break a score of one hundred.
A model of awareness and competence is a useful one, and it is one that I come back to frequently as I take stock of where I am, how I am doing and what I am struggling with. In particular, it’s helpful to know there is a pathway out the other side. When learning is difficult and frustrating, when ideas aren’t landing and concepts aren’t being retained, it is a useful reminder that insight will come. It will not always be this hard, and at some point in the future it will actually feel easy.
The larger question is whether we are engaged in learning at all. Are we striving to grow and develop or are we lurking around the lower corridors of conscious and unconscious incompetence? Are we wrestling with interesting questions and challenges, or are we shirking attention and evading effort by hoping that no one notices?
The question being posed—and the larger value of learning—relates back to last week’s article about going deep. It can be difficult to engage on a sustained basis. It can be easy—and tempting—to stay at a superficial level, keep doing what is easy, and not challenge ourselves further. When you take something that has worked and keep applying it, when you don’t question or strive or seek ways to improve it, this is largely what you are doing.
Operating on autopilot, interestingly, is the downside of unconscious competence. Once something becomes easy enough to not require conscious effort, you don’t particularly need to pay attention to what you are doing. You can keep showing up, delivering on what is asked, and wrap up at the end of the day unruffled and unchallenged. The risk is that you also end your days unengaged.
A while back, I wrote an article on my need to immerse myself more in reading. I’ve done better since then, but not awesomely. I have actually read books for pleasure. I have read more books in the last year than I have in the preceding years, so progress. In terms of where I would like to be, however, I’m a long way off. That isn’t about keeping score, about being able to brag about how many books I’ve read or being able to offer a witty insight or quote at a cocktail party (not that we’re doing many of those right now). My desire to change was because I love to read, and I’m not doing it.
Particularly in the last few months, there hasn’t been much of an excuse. Many of the demands on my time have reduced significantly. I’m not travelling, my work schedule has been manageable and I have had ample opportunity to pick up a book. I just haven’t. It is easy to attribute that to the pandemic, the stress of uncertainty and the level of emotional intensity that surviving the daily news cycle demands. Not doing something that I genuinely say I want to and value doing, however, is still a choice.
Breaking through inertial resistance is one of the inherent challenges of getting back to a deeper level of engagement. One of the strategies that I suggested in the article was the use of constraints. Forcing yourself to operate within boundaries can be an incredibly useful cheat in amping up engagement even when it isn’t objectively required. It is a strategy that creates challenge around the work, even when the work itself isn’t necessarily challenging. In manufacturing constraints, you are deliberately causing situations that require creativity, ingenuity and finesse in order to pull them off. You are turning what would otherwise be boring work into a game, for no one’s amusement but your own.
Imposing constraints as a way of stimulating engagement doesn’t have to be something you reserve for work, or for when stakes are high. It is a strategy you can apply in a range of situations, from the complicated to the prosaic. A few years ago, I was motorcycling back from Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast, and found myself in a driving rainstorm and heavy traffic. For no other reason other than the fact that it amused me to do so, I decided to see how far I could get without using my brakes (for those who are curious, the answer was all the way up and down the Malahat, and to the outer fringes of Victoria proper).
You can also use constraints to stimulate learning. Deliberating choosing to adopt a new approach or use new technology can be a powerful and easy way to amp up the challenge. When you create a situation where you are forced to learn new skills in order to deliver on an objective, you are deliberately choosing to reset into a state of conscious incompetence. From here, the only way out is through, by developing the understanding and learning the skills you need to succeed.
The workshop that I have been building over the last couple of months is a good example of this. I’ve been developing and delivering advanced training programs for more than twenty years now, so this is something I’m more than familiar with. It would be easy to be unenthused or bored, and there has been course design work I’ve done in recent years that would absolutely qualify.
When I normally build a workshop, it is designed for in-person delivery. The essence of what is required are a lesson plan, slides, handouts and a handful of exercises. Add an instructor, projector and classroom, and you’re done. For a few years, I’ve had a goal of moving beyond classroom-based training in how workshops are delivered—particularly at an advanced level. The onset of the pandemic became both stimulus and reason for finally doing something about it, and actually developing a program.
The learning curve I’ve been on since I have started has been incredibly steep. Designing curriculum to deliver online is very different than programs delivered in person. Learning the technology to deliver is one challenge; integrating that with the web sites, e-commerce platforms and mailing engines is another. I’ve needed to refine my graphic design skills, re-engage my photography and audio-visual knowledge, and also learn a great deal about processing, managing and streaming video. I have deliberately switched the presentation software that I am using. That’s not to ignore the work of actually developing content. Over and above all of this was also the building of a marketing and awareness campaign to get the word out.
There have been times during this process where I’ve been admittedly and unabashedly frustrated and overwhelmed. There are an incredible number of moving parts that all need to talk to each other and integrate well. Sorting through this and ramping up my knowledge and understanding has unquestionably felt like work. It is also some of the most rewarding and engaging work that I have done in quite literally years. Occasional frustrations notwithstanding, I have enjoyed the process immensely, in part because I am needing to find new and different ways of sorting and working through what have otherwise been well-trodden paths and familiar fields.
Learning is—rather unsurprisingly—the engine of growth. It is also a powerful means of short-circuiting ennui, fostering stimulation and creating engagement. Not only is it a mechanism that allows you to find a deeper level of connection and interest in the work you are doing (even if the work itself isn’t terribly stimulating) but it also directly feeds a continual building of competence. With that also comes increased confidence, satisfaction and self-esteem. There’ are a lot of positives and very little downside. The only real loss is the decline in your level of conscious incompetence, and what’s not to like about that?