If you are transitioning from a “safe” corporate job to entrepreneur, chances are you are doing a lot of new things. It is amazing how much there is to learn when you start a business for the first time; from forming new work habits to web design to bookkeeping to product development to sales and marketing.
Based on your background, natural strengths and experience, you might find some tasks easier than others. Regardless of what you are learning, if it is new to you, you will go through a determined set of steps which us training and development wonks call the “conscious competence learning model.”
Why should you care about an obscure model?
Because when you understand the natural stages your brain goes through to learn something new, you are more likely to relax, expect confusion and resistance, seek opportunities to practice and give yourself lots of time to learn.
Most of us are impatient by nature, and if we don’t understand something right away, think either (depending on our degree of self esteem) “I am a lunkhead” or “this is stupid and not worth learning.” Either of these thoughts may cut short critical personal and professional development.
So here is a breakdown of the stages of learning:
STAGE 1: UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE.
You aren’t aware of what you don’t know. Otherwise known as blissful ignorance.
Example: If you are a full-time employee of a corporation and have never pondered becoming an entrepreneur, you have no real idea what is involved. The idea sounds dangerously romantic, and you spend hours in your cube, fantasizing about your carefree lifestyle.
What you need in this phase: A dose of reality.
STAGE 2: CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
You become painfully aware of what you don’t know.
This is the “hopeless klutz” phase.
Example: You get excited about the possibility of working for yourself, so you poke around on the web and buy a few books. You find out there are a million things to take into consideration and everyone has a different opinion about what will make your business a success. You don’t feel like you have a handle on things, and it feels both uncomfortable and overwhelming.
What you need in this phase: Sound guidance, support and information from trusted experts.
STAGE 3: CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
You are able to do the task with focus and mental effort. Think of how you felt as a kid when you were able to ride your bike without your Mom or Dad’s hand on the back of the seat, and you didn’t wipe out.
Example: With careful planning, study and support, you are able to start your business. You develop your product or service and begin to sell it. You start to interact with customers and handle all aspects of running your business. You still need to use instruction manuals, get expert guidance and spend a lot of time preparing, but you are able to run your business with a decent level of comfort.
What you need in this phase: Practice, practice, practice. And feedback from a trusted source.
STAGE 4: UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
You do the task effortlessly without even thinking about it. Very smart author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this flow.
Example: You are in business for a few years and work very hard. You perfect your products and services, understand your market and develop real expertise in your field. You learn from your mistakes. You handle all aspects of running your business without a lot of stress. People look at you as an expert and think “man, he must have been born doing that, since he does it so well.”
What you need in this phase: Not much, as you are comfortable and “at home” with your new skills. Pretty soon, however, you will need to challenge yourself with something new or focus on improving your performance, since if you stay in the “unconscious competence” stage for too long you can get bored.
The power of this model was really hammered home when I used to teach presentation skills around the country. Regardless of experience, most people were terrified of standing up in front of a camera and giving a presentation, especially when they were trying to change some ingrained habits, like inserting”ums and ahs” in every other sentence, rubbing their hands together nervously as if they were being interrogated by an IRS agent, or rocking back and forth like an ocean buoy. Many would get extremely frustrated with themselves when they were unable to expunge habits after one 3-minute practice run. After introducing the conscious competence model, however, they realized that they had to go through each stage of learning to successfully change habits, and they relaxed.
Over time, you will learn that you get stuck in stage 2 or 3 with certain tasks and it never gets better, no matter how much you practice. This is a good indication that a skill is not a natural strength, and it may be better to hire someone to do it for you.