Knowledge of the learning process will help you through the stumble-bumble stage of new entrepreneurship

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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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

20 Responses to “Knowledge of the learning process will help you through the stumble-bumble stage of new entrepreneurship”

  1. […] Do not mix up discomfort at doing something new with aversion to doing it at all.  Remember the conscious competence learning model,and how you have to “stumble the mumble” before you “walk the talk.” I will […]

  2. Fantastic website. Lots of helpful info here. I’m sending it to a few friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you on your sweat!

  3. […] that you cannot skip steps in the conscious competence model. The only way to get better is to train like a winner, getting expert feedback along the way. The […]

  4. Thank you so much Pam…it is a pleasure to connect with someone who totally gets it!

    Nancy K.

  5. Pam, this is a fabulous article and so is your book Escape from Cubicle Nation! The learning curve frustration in adults now is sooo true, and so sad, because we were once all beautiful inquisitive children. I believe this is because we have all been subjected to years and years of shame and fear if we don’t learn and integrate at the speed of light the information we are constantly being given. This is because most of us have worked in a job for someone else. I call this Corporate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is real and how much harm it causes us physically and emotionally has been largely underestimated in our culture. We fear that if we don’t get “it” fast enough, we will lose our job, or worse, we will be humiliated by being hauled into the bosses office in order to account for our apparent incompetence.

    So, we blame ourselves because we think it is our fault that we cannot learn in the time frame we generally have been given. Let alone, most of us have different styles of learning and are rarely offered any other way to absorb the information other than the less than adequate explanation we are given by a generally highly agressive boss. Sink or Drown are usually what we are presented with in our jobs. This anxiety adds additional stress causing our bodies to release higher levels of cortisol which in turn blocks our memory’s ability to retain information. We find we now cannot attend to what we are supposed to learn and get even more anxious. Pretty soon our ability to learn anything goes out the window. It is a pretty vicious cycle.

    So, we carry that outside of work when we need to learn something new for our own pleasure or business. Generally when we are faced with a new learning situation we regress to approximately fifth grade level. This is pretty scary if your job requires a high intellect to survive. But, we need to acknowledge in the moment that this is not an intellectual regression on our part, but a necessary way to start to absorb the information easily. Learning is like a wrapping a large ball of string. We must start wrapping it at the smallest unit of information that we can handle. They we need to wrap and rewrap each layer of information as we go, practicing over and over what we need to, to feel we have integrated that level. We can’t go flying forward because we will not have the foundation of that previous level to support the next. Finally, yes, we are able to hold the whole large ball of string in our memory banks.

    As you can see, with a complex concept or skill, this is how much time you need to give yourself to absorb it. Rarely are we given this option in the corporate world.

    Wow, amazing comment Nancy! Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, I totally agree with it!

    All the best,


  6. Mark Silver says:

    Just to say, “Amen, sister!” And, I lov ewhat Martice mentioned about Stage 5. There are also spiritual experiences that can sidestep *some* of this occasionally, by giving one a direct taste of experience through transmission.

    But, that still won’t build body/muscle/brain memories so that something new can be done effortlessly.

    Mark Silver’s last blog post..Is Opt-In an Evil Gimmick?

  7. […] the process.  As I elaborated in my post about the “conscious competence learning model,” you can’t expect to go from novice to expert in one step.  It will take time, […]

  8. Your right on the money with the competency model. Some would suggest however, that there’s one more level. The consciously, unconsciously competent level.

    Stage 5 means that these individuals know what to do; can do it with out thinking about it and can effectively teach others.

    There are allot of people who are unconsciously competent that are unaware of their strategy, process, techniques, tactics, knowledge, and/or skills they apply to get their results. Therefore, they can’t methodically explain how and why they do what they do so others can duplicate the results.

  9. Gannon Beck says:

    Hi Pam,

    This is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I love to learn about learning. I think one thing missing from the model that people need to understand is the time commitment. Psychologists have found that it takes about 10,000 hours to develop expertise which usually takes a person on the level of 5 to 10 years. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that it’s fairly easy to move from level one to level two, and not very difficult from level two to level three. Moving from level three to level four though is arduous. As mike suggested earlier, that is “The Dip” Seth Godin wrote of.

    I’ve been researching and writing about this for a while. If you are interested I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written so far. I’ve got four entries in a five part series written. You can view it here:

    I just found your site today through Seth’s post, by the way. You’re blog is fantastic and you have been immediately added to the blogroll.


  10. Pamela:

    Great post. I really needed it today as I work on my Product Factory assignment, feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable. At least now I know it is partly because of my stage of learning. Aha!

    Thanks. Love your blog!

  11. Drupal Ace says:

    What stage is your brain?


  12. Rebs says:

    Hi Pamela,

    The way you describe the process is spot on. I’m personally at the concious competence level.We just finsihed a major project for a client and they have given us the thumbs up to handle the next one.But it took quite an effort to understand their needs. Im looking forward to reaching stage 4

  13. Ryan Hyde says:

    Is there a book you can recommend on learning? Would the Flow book you mentioned in this post be the best one to start with?

    Hi Ryan!

    I am so sorry that I don’t know of books offhand, but I do suggest checking the links in this post, since they did have quite a bit of background on the theory.

    The book “Flow” is more about understanding optimal performance. It is not “beach reading,” but is very fascinating.


  14. Nikole Gipps says:

    This post makes me laugh, because I launched my business at the worst possible time – in the early stages of pregnancy. Although it was great in some ways, because I get to work at home with my toddler … I was suffering from some pretty horrible “mommy brain” in those early days. So you combine hormones, this new business, and mommy brain – man, I had some days where I had convinced myself I was incapable of learning anything new!!!! (Thank goodness for the kindness of my friends to talk me through this!) Having been a second-time entrepreneur though, I knew a lot about the business part … I just lacked the focus to stop running around like a chicken without my head!

    Thanks for your post – it’s good to look back at those earlier days and realize how far I’ve come!

  15. Mike DeWitt says:


    I think this dovetails some with Seth’s “The Dip”. Are you in one because you’re going through the conscious incompetence stage, or because you’re consciously competent in an area you should be getting out of?



  16. I love this model! Thanks for the reminder Pam that I don’t have to be competent in all ares of running a business.

  17. Drew (Prague) says:

    Sorry to be a colossal wonk – but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi isn’t Czech. He’s Hungarian (source:

    His name isn’t remotely Czech, either. Many names end -ak (for men) and -ova(for women). they never end in -alyi. ‘Michal’ is the Czech ‘Michael’.

    Anyway – nice post! It got me wiki-ing n googling!

    Thank God for your wonkitude Drew! I had a faint feeling I was incorrect, but I remember a lot of sources saying he was Czech. I just corrected it, and thanks for keeping me honest!


  18. Leah Maclean says:

    Great reminder Pam – I love the way that William Bridges, in his transition model, refers to the part between the ending and the new beginning as the “muddle” (not just the middle or neutral zone).

  19. Beautifully put Pamela. I love that phrase, “unconscious incompetence” – it sounds like something Lady Bracknell would say: ‘To be consciously incompetent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to be unconsciously incompetent looks like carelessness …’

    I present on this topic all the time and I’m definitely going to reference some of your explanatory phrasing. Thank you.