5 Stages of learning something worth learning


Learning is the process of moving from a state of not knowing to a state of knowing. Learning typically occurs by understanding new information, i.e., gaining knowledge or developing a new skill.

Humans learn in a variety of ways. Some things are simple to learn while others are hard. The stages of learning described in this article mainly apply to the things that are hard to learn.

After all, if I tell you that there are 48 countries in Asia, you just gained knowledge without going through any conspicuous stages. Similarly, if I teach you to pronounce schadenfreude, you’ll learn to do that within seconds.

Of course, knowledge that is hard to gain and skills that are difficult to develop are much more valuable than random facts and pronunciations. This article will identify the 5 stages of learning we go through when learning something hard and valuable.

Keeping these stages in mind will help you remember the bigger picture when you attempt to learn something important and get stuck.

Stages of learning

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence
  5. Conscious unconscious competence

1. Unconscious incompetence

Not knowing that you don’t know.

This is the most dangerous stage to be in. When you don’t know that you don’t know, you apply what little you know to learn something. What little you know is likely to be inadequate and won’t give you the results you want.

To get the results that you want, you need to know more. But you don’t go around trying to learn more because you don’t know that you don’t know.

In this stage, one starts a project with optimism and excitement. They’re vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where they believe they’re smarter than they are. Soon, reality hits.

For example, you learn a few common words of a new language and think you can effectively communicate with its native speakers.

Signs you’re in this stage:

  • You’re infused with hope and optimism
  • You’re experimenting
  • You know little, but think you know enough

Moving to the next stage:

You have to constantly experiment so that reality can provide you with feedback. Avoid assuming you know enough in this stage to prevent a rude awakening in the future.

2. Conscious incompetence

You know that you don’t know.

This is the rude awakening I talked about in the previous section. When you experiment and fail, you realize you don’t know. You become cognizant of the many deficiencies hindering you from learning what you want to learn.

Many people get overwhelmed by the failure and are haunted by negative thoughts and emotions. They’re annoyed, frustrated, and confused. Their ego gets shattered.

At this point, one can either throw in the towel and declare the grapes sour or they can be humbled, infused with a fresh desire to know more.

Say you needed to say something important to a native speaker in their language but couldn’t find the right words. You feel embarrassed and realize that the few words you learned aren’t enough to communicate effectively.

Signs you’re in this stage:

  • You feel disappointed by your failure
  • You doubt yourself and question your self-worth
  • You think of quitting
  • The feedback from reality is painful

Moving to the next stage:

Remind yourself that when you started out, there was no way for you to know that you didn’t know. Failure was inevitable. Making mistakes is unavoidable when you’re learning something hard and new. You can’t blame yourself for unconscious incompetence.

3. Conscious competence

Knowing what you don’t know.

Now that you know that you don’t know, you seek to know what you don’t know. This is the stage where maximum learning occurs. You try to learn everything you can about that topic or skill. You exert a lot of conscious effort to gather information or practice your skill.

Signs you’re in this stage:

  • Intensive information gathering
  • Intensive testing
  • Riding a steep learning curve
  • Practicing hard

Moving to the next stage:

Based on how deficient your knowledge or skill was, you’ll require varying amounts of information gathering or practicing. The key thing to remember in this stage is to reflect on what you learn and test things out constantly.

Compare bits and pieces of the information to see how they fit together.

4. Unconscious competence

Not knowing how you know.

After the grind of the previous stage, you reach this last stage of mastery over a topic or a skill. Things become more or less automatic for you. You don’t have to exert a lot of conscious effort. Everything comes naturally to you. You’re surprised at how easy it is for you.

When people ask you how you’re able to be so masterful at what you do, you have no clue. You reply, “I don’t know. I just am.”

Continuing the above example, when you practice speaking a new language long enough, you master it.

Signs you’re in this stage:

  • Being good at what you do becomes your second nature
  • You find it hard to explain why you’re so good

Moving to the next stage:

Instead of resting on your laurels, it can be immensely helpful for you to move to the next stage. Moving to the next stage will provide you with the right mindset to tackle any challenge in the future.

5. Conscious unconscious competence

Knowing how you know.

Conscious unconscious competence is gained by reflecting on your learning process. When you do that, you notice the distinct stages you went through when you were learning your skill.

You develop what’s called a growth mindset. You laugh at people who think you became good at what you do overnight or that you had a ‘talent’ of some sort. You see people struggling in the unconscious incompetence stage and you feel like guiding them to where you are now.

In this stage, you reflect on how you learned the new language. Going from mastering a few words to mastering a ton of words through practice makes you realize there were distinct stages in your learning process.

learning stages and states of knowledge

Key lessons to become a super-learner

Following are the things you should keep in mind to become a super-learner:

  • Expect failure when you’re starting out. You don’t have a clue what you’re doing and you don’t have a clue that you don’t have a clue. Merely reading this article and learning about the first stage should quickly push you to the second stage. When you start with the second stage, you can save a lot of time and effort.
  • The fear, discomfort, and pain of failure are there to motivate you to fix things. If you didn’t feel any pain from failing, you wouldn’t fix anything. Pain is part of the process of learning something valuable.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for feedback from reality. This constant feedback will be your friend till you reach mastery.
  • Have a long-term view. Learning something valuable takes time because it’s hard, and you need to move through some stages. You can learn any skill you want if you give it enough time.

You just moved through the learning stages

Today, you learned about the stages of learning. Before landing on this page, you probably didn’t know what these stages were. Looking at the headline probably moved you from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.

While going through the article, you may have recalled your own life experiences– how you moved through the different stages in your past learnings. This was the conscious competence stage where you tried to consciously absorb the material of this article.

Having almost finished the article, you’ve now mastered knowing about the stages of learning. I’m telling you this so that when someone asks you about the stages of learning, you won’t just say, “I don’t know how I know. I just know.”

Instead, I want you to share this article with them because that’s how you came to know.