We’d all like to believe that our lives will continuously improve in a linear fashion. For some, there is even an innate sense of entitlement that with each subsequent year, we should always be happier, more successful, and better than we were before.
Of course, there are many different metrics with which to measure “success.” It’s not just a matter of raw happiness, but also a question of how much control and mastery we feel over the realms of our lives. As Nietzsche said, “Happiness is the feeling that power increases- that resistance is being overcome.”
From my own experiences, I’ve seen the ecstasy that comes with gaining true mastery over a new realm. Although the initial thrill wears off with time, there is also an interesting question of whether the skills themselves remain intact, once acquired.
There are certain skills, like riding a bike, that simply never go away. They remain latent in our brains and muscle memory, and can be accessed at any time. It’s as simple as making a withdrawal from our mental ATM.
But there are also skills that are quicker to atrophy, or that will slowly decay under the surface without our even realizing it.
The “Four Stages of Competence” is an important illustration of a fundamental truth about the way people learn. Sometimes we “don’t know what we don’t know,” and becoming aware of this is the first step to making true change. Unconscious incompetence becomes conscious incompetence, and suddenly we are able to start improving our shortcomings by identifying what they actually are. When enough knowledge or ability is gained, we transition into conscious competence. This is the stage of riding the bike while thinking about it— having to be consciously focused on peddling and keeping one’s balance. And then true mastery comes through the repetition that leads us to unconscious competence, in which we can execute or draw from this knowledge without strain, almost as if we were “naturals.” Now you can ride a bike while teasing the pretty girl sitting on your handlebars. Or teach your son to ride a bike.
There is an assumption related to the four stages that unconscious competence is a terminal point, and once it is reached, the journey is over. But the truth is that unconscious competence (by nature of its unconsciousness) leaves one susceptible to slipping back into unconscious incompetence gradually and invisibly. In most realms of thought and action, remaining unconscious for too long will hinder us.
And so, truly, these four stages represent a cycle that can repeat itself throughout your life.
I followed this cycle through its four stages years ago when I first decided to start reading guys’ advice online about meeting women. I felt a bit lost and confused after breaking up with my college girlfriend (unconscious incompetence), and then I was shocked to find out what was “really going on” around me, and all the things I was doing wrong (conscious incompetence). In that second stage, I started trying to make some changes in the way I behaved and how I presented myself, and there were times when it was still rocky. Through practice and just putting myself out there repeatedly, I was eventually able to build conscious competence. Eventually, I got comfortable with my abilities to easily meet women, and my sex life and dating experiences improved drastically. Over the years I’ve had to think about it less and less, since the changes I made in improving myself have become “natural” and are now indistinguishable from who I “really” am. I’ve lived the last few years in a state of unconscious competence.
I believed that this new state of being would last indefinitely. But as many married men will tell you, being off the market for an extended period of time can make it seem as if you’re starting from scratch again. This is where unconscious competence creeps back toward unconscious incompetence. And that is the most dangerous of the four stages to be in, the most vulnerable and naive. Sometimes a man can be living in the stage of unconscious incompetence but think he is exhibiting unconscious competence. This explains why some married men who are basically miserable love to give younger guys advice. It’s partly to assuage their ego and rationalize away discontents, but for many of them, they actually think they have “mastered the game.” These are the guys who think it’s a deep insight when they tell you something like, “When your wife wants something, just say okay!” They are quick to spout facile advice that sounds nice but lacks any real substance.
It’s not so much that I’ve gone back to incompetence in my abilities to meet women, but in a way I’ve become less competent in maintaining a strong inner frame. Some guys refer to this as “inner game”– the mindset and beliefs that you internalize in order to be happier and more successful in life. By allowing myself to stop thinking about this consciously for so long, I was susceptible to being thrown wildly off balance by a breakup. So I still find myself making mistakes that I wouldn’t have made a couple of years ago, like getting too upset about a girl’s words or actions, being too impatient, and not just enjoying every moment of life’s ups and downs with a cocksure grin.
It’s shocking to realize that you’ve lost ground in your progress, and that can introduce even more feelings of self-doubt. But suffering setbacks is an inherent part of life. Eventually we all age, decay, and die. Our lives do not follow a perfect, linear upward path. And right now things don’t feel as effortless as they once did. But in the long run, this might be the healthiest thing for continued growth. If I coasted on autopilot from my mid-20s onward, thinking I had learned everything I needed to learn about dating, it probably would have caught up with me eventually. Resting on your laurels (unconscious competence) is an easy way to end up back on the bottom. “Pride cometh before a fall,” and all that.
Now that I have been taught this lesson about the competence cycle, I am better prepared to have a continual process of growth for a longer timeline. This ties into the theme of my blog– it’s an ongoing Quest (Forever). With any area of improvement in your life, you should take a long view and aim for continual growth and improvement. Of course, there will always be times we expend little of our focus on something as we shift toward other priorities. So is there any perfect fix or preventative measure we can take to avoid falling from stage 4 back to stage 1 in the competence cycle? The best protection against this is to remain mindful, to keep an eye on yourself. Just like polishing a mirror or dusting your shelves from time to time, it’s important not to let yourself mentally atrophy and look away from any area of your life for too long.
If you have a skill set you wish to maintain, keep checking in with it. In fact, you might want to continue finding ways to grow within it and improve it in some way. To go back to the example I used earlier, even if you didn’t want to keep hooking up with women and decided to get into a monogamous relationship, there are still a lot of opportunities to remain conscious of the dynamic you create and maintain in the relationship. Also, you can keep your skills sharp to an extent by teaching them to others (blogging is one avenue for this). In this case, you do run the risk of becoming an armchair quarterback, since you are not directly acting on your own advice, and avoiding dealing with the emotional fortitude required when “in the field.” If it simply becomes an exercise to stoke your own ego, rather than earnest pursuit of truth and the pleasure of helping others gain mastery, then you’ll turn into a talentless hack eventually. When you push hard and use 100% of your own understanding to help others learn, then you are continuing to stretch and exercise your full talents.
I’m interested to hear from all of you on this. Is there any skill you “mastered” in life, only to realize later on that you had somehow started back at square one?
What did you do about it?