The Route To Becoming Good At Something


As a general rule, when your child, or anyone in the work force, doesn’t know what he/she wants to do, they should instead always be developing skills and competencies that will qualify them for the jobs that companies are most looking to fill and increase their hireability. – Mark Goulston

I came across Martin Broadwell’s (1969) i consciousness-competence framework again recently while reading about teaching. The image above is based on this four stage model and is a good one to keep in mind.

It’s hard to appreciate a state of mind where you don’t know that you don’t know something. It’s more obvious to others than it is to you. For example, if you listen to someone reminiscing about the good old days when everyone had a job and things worked and how everything has gone wrong now – you can pretty much guarantee that the problem is not that things have gone wrong but that the world has changed and the person complaining has not kept up – the world they knew has been replaced and no one told them that was happening.

This is a trap we fall into all the time. Most of us have an area of competence – but for some of us we start to think that because we are competent in one area we must also be good at other things. And that’s not the case. It’s very easy to step outside your circle of competence and not realize that you’ve got it all wrong.

The only solution is to recognise that you’re a novice at this and start to learn. At that point you know that you don’t know something and you start to look for resources, for opportunities to learn and develop your skills. This is when you become a student – someone who is seeking knowledge to get better at something.

After a period of learning and practice you know that you can do something well – you’re consciously competent. I’ve called this stage being professional, because that’s really the point at which people hire you. They don’t hire you to learn on their time, they hire you to get the job done – which is what a professional does.

Then there’s a stage beyond that, one that some people call mastery. It’s talked about as unconscious competence – where you do something without really being able to tell how you do it. How do you read that room, see the way in which minds are flowing, how do you ask the right question, carry out the right analysis, look for the right clue? You can’t explain why you feel something is right or wrong but you know it is.

This is perhaps most obvious in physical skills – the unconscious competence that comes with playing an instrument or shooting the perfect 3-pointer – but it’s visible in trades and business as well. But I prefer the term artistry to mastery, because in many cases it’s not about being good without being able to tell how – but being so good that you can break all the rules the professionals live by. That’s what great artists do – they know the form and go beyond it.


Karthik Suresh

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