Unconscious incompetence

Following on from previous discussions on ability I thought I would mention something I learnt years ago. I learnt it in the context of sports coaching, no idea where it came from originally.

There are 4 stages of development

Stage 1

Unconscious incompetence – you are rubbish and you don’t realise it.

Stage 2

Conscious incompetence – you are rubbish but now you are aware of it.

Stage 3

Conscious competence – when you think about it, you can do it.

Stage 4

Unconscious competence – you can do it without thinking.

Driving is a great example, and its easy to recall going through the stages (or not for some of us!!).

I think the same thing applies to development. There are lots of thing I do automatically now that I really had to think through years ago. And that was only once I’d worked out there was a problem.

Have you see it before? know where it came from originally? useful?

I’m not sure you could say what stage you were at in a large field, but for small areas you probably could.

any thoughts?



11 Responses to “Unconscious incompetence”

  1. Curt Frye Says:

    Hi Simon,

    I haven’t seen the progression you mention, but professors at Cornell University performed a study which supports the hypothesis that the more incompetent you are, the less likely you are to know how incompetent you are. Here’s the link: http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf

  2. MikeC Says:

    I’ve seen similar items in the martial arts world, where it’s used to demonstrate to the newbs that they’re not Bruce Lee after three sessions!

    (paraphrased from a poster at a gym run by a friend of mine. I can’t remember the exact wording because I’ve not been there for a while.)

    *If you think you have nothing left to learn – you have everything left to learn.
    *If you think you have a lot to learn – you have a lot left to learn.
    *If you KNOW you have a lot to learn – Congratulations. You’re good enough to know how good you are.

    On the Excel etc side, I regularly encounter people who proudly describe themselves as “pretty good” because they’ve figured out how to use a formula with 2-3 nested IF’s (after a couple of false starts). Bless their cotton socks… ;-)

  3. Biggus Dickus Says:

    “Unconscious competence”

    That comes from experience and practise, practise, practise.

    My concern in our field is that everyone has to be such a “generalist” today that few will ever reach that stage. Guys like me were lucky to start when things were simple in the PC world and we were able to grow with the industry.

    It’s making me feel better that I am getting old because every day my 20+ years in the biz are showing their value more and more…… “Grey Beards Rule !! ” – until Nature returns me to “Unconscious Incompetence” once again ;-)


  4. MikeC Says:

    Dick – re your comment on everyone needing to be a “generalist” – I see exactly the opposite working within a company structure, as opposed to freelancing the way you guys do.
    People are specialising more and more on one area to the exclusion of all else, so they might be a whiz in their specialist area (be it Office apps, SQL, whatever), but very inexperienced in others. Within a company, this works ok as each specialist concentrates on their own area, and together we can make things work (most of the time..!) by pooling resource and working together. Until someone leaves and we have a huge gaping hole in the knowledge pool where they used to be….!

  5. Biggus Dickus Says:


    Maybe I explained that wrong. Let me try again.

    In order to operate in today’s technology world the need for knowledge of so many different technologies makes it impossible to be more than a “generalist” on all technologies and I believe that most of today’s technologies require a level of knowledge of so many things that it is vurtually impossible for a single person to be able to pull it all together.

    So companies that have the resources develop “specialists” ad ten somehow try to bring them all together to produce something that works. I don’t see that working all that often and when it does it ends up taking a lot longer and a is a lot more costly than can actually be justified.

    This actually limits the likelihood that “departmental” apps can be rspurced (HR or financially) and so they simply will not get done (or will be done badly – which makes us all look bad).

    The complexity is making it harder tp accomplish anything BUT Enterprise apps IMHO. That’s too bad.


  6. Simon Says:

    Thanks for the link, I only remember 1 person whose self opinion was miles out of line with reality. After every exam he was utterly confident of 70+percent but he rarely got more than 30. He probably runs his own multi million pound company now!

    Mike – like it
    Dick – practice makes perfect but only perfect practice. I regularly see deeply engrained crappy habbits.

    I used to think I was a bit of a spreadsheet specialist, but I think I’m more of a generalist now.
    This makes it easier to take when people do stuff thats better than I would have done. I saw a great reverse lookup with wildcards (array) function the other day. I was going to code it in VBA, but the function was quicker/easier therefore better (not as auditable/testable going forward maybe, but that is rarely an affordable priority.)

    I think departments are going to need to start using enterprise class tools rather than stretch personal desktop productivity tools. Thats has pros and cons I think.

    oh and I thought it was grey hair that was encouraged in IT not grey beards?

  7. Biggus Dickus Says:


    yes you’re right – grey beards is sexist – sorry ;-)

  8. Harlan Grove Says:

    Hey, if we’re gonna be so PC, grey hairs is hairist! What about all the baldies out there?! Perhaps those whose experience is engraved on their faces.

  9. Simon Says:

    I wasn’t thinking of the PC angle (I’m a blunt northerner) I was thinking of the poor folks who can’t grow a sensible beard.

    It happened last week, 1 guy had grown a beard on holiday, one of the lasses in the office made a non complimentary comment about the effect of the colouring, next day the beard was gone (which I would say was a positive thing!).

    In the UK we how have age discrimination legislation, so you now shouldn’t advertise for staff that are ‘dynamic’ (may suggest young) or ‘experienced’ (may suggest old). I’d imagine even Harlans innocent sounding description would fall foul of these new rules.

    So my thoughts of needing a few old farts around to keep the young pups from chasing their tails too much is probably way over the top. ;-)

  10. MikeC Says:

    Simon – I can grow a sensible beard, I just choose to grow a non-sensible one to keep myself entertained… hey, a boy needs a hobby*. It was blonde, but since getting a puppy a week ago, the grey seems to be coming through now…!

    Dick, thanks for the clarification. I was thinking along completely different lines (Obviously!) I’ll get my coat…

    * and growing this beard beats watching TV.

  11. Knowledge and risk « Smurf on Spreadsheets Says:

    […] None of these are life and death situations for sure (well recursive event triggering will kill Excel), but Excel is a massive component, it contains 200 objects and 4,500 methods and properties. Many mainstream devs might usually work with components a tenth or twentieth of the size. They are probably so ignorant they don’t know how ignorant they are (unconscious incompetence). see here: especially the links in the comments. […]

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