Understanding the 4 Stages of Competence

Do you remember learning a skill when you were younger? Maybe it was a sport, like basketball, or a skill like typing. At first, you weren’t very good at it but as you continued, you became better, maybe to the point of being able to perform at a high level without even thinking about what you were doing. While you may not be aware of them, as you improved, you went through what are known in NLP as the 4 stages of competence.

These stages are what we’re going to take a look at today.

The Four Stages of Competence

As a martial arts instructor and later, as a college professor, I saw that all students go through these 4 stages of competence as they learn new skills.

Why is this important?

Because if you know how to spot which stage you or someone you are teaching are in, you can use that information to shorten the learning curve.

As you read the following, think about an activity that you enjoy doing, maybe a sport, business activity, or a hobby. This can be a physical or mental activity, like practicing martial arts, playing a video game, or increasing your reading speed. It just has to be something that you have worked at in the past.

As you read the following, use the information to figure out what level of competence you are presently at when performing the behavior.

Stage 1 – Unconsciously Incompetent

Have you ever heard the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know”?

We all have, and it represents the first of the 4 stages of competence.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time working with martial arts students, I’m going to use a martial arts student for many of my examples.  

Stage one is the stage a new white belt is in when they first step on the floor of their martial arts school. This student learns new customs, maybe a little bit of a new language, and they’ll start using their body in new ways.

They’ll probably feel lost at first. This is normal.

To move from this stage, a person needs to become aware of the fact that they are not very good at a particular thing. In this case, formal martial arts practice.

Since they have never tried practicing martial arts in a formal setting, they are not good at these skills. But, if they stick it out, they can move into stage 2.

But because it takes being able to stand being very uncomfortable for a while to move to the next stage, some people quit trying and never move on from here.

This is why so many people never earn their black belts.

Stage 2 – Consciously Incompetent

To become consciously incompetent, you have to try something new and then stick to it for a while. For the martial arts student, this would be after a handful of lessons, where they notice that “everybody is doing this better than me.”

To improve, the martial arts student needs to realize that to become proficient, they need to attend a lot more classes.  

This is where they would be considered in the second of the 4 stages of competence.

For you, this second stage could be many things. Right now, think back to an experience where you attempted something new, and you recognized that you were woefully inadequate at it.

Maybe it was the first time you had to lead a group discussion at work or when you started working with a new piece of software. After you finished the activity you thought, “I think I’m going to need more practice to get good at that.”

Here’s the good news.

No matter what it is, each time you try, you can use the feedback you get to enhance your awareness of what needs to be improved and, ultimately, your competence level. This is how you move from stage 1 to stage 2.

Stage 3 – Consciously Competent

This stage comes with a disclaimer, there is no guarantee you will move from stage 2 to stage 3, but if you keep practicing, there is a good chance you will. It is also the only way you’ll ever find out if you can.

For a while, the martial arts student will notice that everyone is better than they are. This is normal, especially if they are the newest student. But if the student is sincere, comes to class, ask their instructor questions on how they can improve, and practices, they almost always will get better.

This is the third stage in the 4 levels of competence.

The same goes for anyone who is attempting to get better at some activity. In the second stage, they realize they “suck” or at least aren’t very good.

But instead of giving up, they seek out information and resources that will help them perform better. In the case of leading discussions, they talk to the person in the office that does it the best. In the case of the software program, they go to a class or join a group of other newbies working with a mentor to get more information.

Now, they are intentionally concentrating on activities and investing their time on learning how to become better at that task or skill.

They have moved from stage 2 into stage 3.

Stage 4 – Unconsciously Competent

One of the things I like to do every four years is watch the Olympics. The reason I enjoy the Olympics is because these elite athletes have learned to operate in the zone.

As you already may know, the zone is the place where time stands still because you are totally immersed in whatever it is you are doing. This is exactly what happens to a world class gymnast or any other high caliber athlete when they are competing. They have practiced so much that their muscle memory takes over and they are performing at an unconsciously competent level.

This is also the “secret” to becoming a black belt.  By continuing to put in the work and  practicing while working with an instructor they get the feedback necessary to reach the next level of training and eventually earn their black belt.  

This person isn’t some superior human being. It’s a person who has put in the time to become a person who is (somewhat) unconsciously competent in the martial arts.

This is also the “secret” to reaching the fourth stage of competence for any skill you want to become excellent at. Putting in the work, getting feedback and sticking to it until “it” just happens. You can do it without thinking.

How to Move Through the Four Stages of Competence

By now I’m sure you realize that it takes more than saying, “I would like to be good at that thing” to become good at anything. While some people will say this is possible, I would say it’s misleading and can be outright dangerous.

Think about scuba diving or jumping out of an airplane. To do either of these takes quite a bit of training and, afterwards, a certificate. While if you had enough money, you might be able to hire someone to let you do them without the training, it probably wouldn’t end well for you.

To move through the 4 stages of competence you usually have to be willing to move though all four of them. While you may be able to start at stage 2 in some activities, wherever you start, you will need to put in a lot of practice to reach level four.

The next time you’re working at a skill, use this knowledge to help you take the steps you need to improve. By knowing what stage you’re in, you’ll be able to work out a roadmap to the place where you’ll eventually have to think little about what you are doing.

No matter what it is, this is a great place to be. Because as black belt will tell you, to reach this level of competence in any area of your life is worth it. Knowing how to move through these stages will make you one of the elites in your field.

Get the jumpstart you need to succeed with NLP and unlock your true potential. Start learning today with my NLP cheat sheet – get yours now!

Scroll to Top