top of page

Stages of Mastery

If you’re like me, you enjoy learning new things. But you also realize the ugly side to this: you have to be terrible at them . . . at least in the beginning. 

I took up singing a few years ago on a whim. That was a great idea . . . until I had to perform on stage. What was I thinking?! Whose voice was coming out of those speakers? Certainly not the same one I was hearing in the shower . . . unfortunately, it was.

Until then I had been happily basking in the first stage of learning development: unconscious incompetence. I had no idea how bad I was! Ah, the good old days . . . 

Standing there on stage with parched lips, lights in my eyes and 300 horrified faces before me, I was thrust into the second stage of learning: conscious incompetence. I was suddenly aware: this singing thing was harder than I thought. Aka, get me out of here! 

This second stage is where most of us get stopped. (Don’t!)

Somehow I kept going. Little did I know that only 6 months later, I would be performing on stage at Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall with Michael Bublé. No kidding! (OK, truth be told I was part of a 100-person back-up chorus and sir Bublé had no idea who I was). But, I figured, if I was good enough to be on the same stage as him, I couldn’t be all that bad! 

This is the third stage of learning many of us have experienced: conscious competence. You’re good (but perhaps not great) and you know it. Surprisingly, this is where people get stopped as well. They become complacent. “Why work harder when I can just get by?”

It’s worth reaching the fourth stage of learning: unconscious competence because then it seems effortless. Michael Bublé is so good he doesn’t even have to try. (But I’m sure I still sound better than him in the shower!)


You’ve probably been through these four stages at some point in your life and career. Whether you’re starting a new business venture, hobby, or pursuing a personal dream, the first stage is certainly the most fun: blissful ignorance! But eventually you move through the next three stages and get really good at what you’re doing until, one day, it will seem effortless, too. 

And then, with all the struggle in the rearview mirror, you can take on your next learning challenge and start the (painful) process all over again. Maybe we really don’t learn, huh?! 

Where are you stretching your boundaries? Share your thoughts (conscious and unconscious)!

Back to Articles

bottom of page