Saturday, January 17, 2009

Unconscious Compentence 2: Conscious Incompetence

Last time we introduced the concept of the "Conscious Competence" learning model.

The four-step process that takes us from "unconscious incompetence" to "unconscious competence" looks like this:

1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence

We've covered the stage called Unconscious Incompetence.

It's really hard to stay at the Unconscious Incompetence stage once you become interested in a job, a task, a hobby, or a profession.

You poke around a bit, learn a few things, and POOF! You realize that there's a whole lot that you don't know.

That puts you in the stage called Conscious Incompetence: You're aware that there's a lot to be learned, and you're aware that you don't have this knowledge.

Most of us know not to meddle in things when we don't have adequate knowledge. But the transition from Unconscious incompetent to Conscious incompetent is not a simple thing. In many cases, we have to learn wave after wave about the things we don't know.

It's like peeling back the onion. At each layer we learn that there's still more we don't know.

Two things can happen at this stage. One is that you can choose to stay incompetent. That is, you decide that you are NOT going to learn this new skill. The other option is to decide that you WILL climb the learning curve.

If you decide to stay un-knowledgeable in this field, you will probably hire someone to do the relevant work. With luck, our clients are in the Conscious Incompetent stage: They know that they are not in the network support business, so they hire us.

We frequently have to make this kind of decision in our jobs. For example, which of the following do you personally know how to do well?

- Create basic html web pages
- Create complicated CSS web pages
- Manage an SQL database
- Code in SQL
- Find code errors in VBscript
- Program in VBscript

In each of these, we begin to learn what we don't know. Then we have to choose whether to learn more. In many cases, we say that we can dabble a bit, but more complicated work will be handed off to a [co-worker, employee, sub-contract]. That decision can only be made once you decide to NOT become competent in some area.

It's okay to choose to stay incompetent in most areas. You literally cannot be competent at most things. That's reality.

I know this sounds absurd, but there was a time when one human being could know everything there was to know about the Internet. You needed to know a lot more about transmission protocols than most people know today. But there was no http, there was no encryption, there was no FTP, there was no DNS, there were no viruses, etc.

Until 1983, TCP/IP was one of several protocols you could choose from. Until 1994, you had to write an essay to connect a commercial enterprise to the Internet.

At that point, the Internet as we know it began to come into existence. And as it began to grow, individuals had to choose what to learn and what to let go. There were skills that made the Internet usable, including a variety of file transfer options. When FTP came along, learning all the other alternatives became unnecessary.

So, we can be competent in one thing and choose to remain incompetent in others.

Eventually, we realize that new technologies are introduced all the time. We will choose to remain incompetent in most of them. Look at the O'Reilly books: How many of those gobbledy-goop titles make sense to you?

Being consciously incompetent is a very important stage. We will remain in this stage with regard to MOST skills we come across.

It is only when we choose to educate ourselves and move to the area of competence that we take stock of what we need to move on. The next stage is called Conscious Competence.

We'll talk about that next.


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