It’s impossible to be successful in any area of life without a certain level of competence. By competence I mean having the skills or ability to do something effectively and successfully. Though building competence to win in life takes time and effort, it will pay you big dividends in the long run. According to the Conscious Competence Model of Learning, individuals go through four psychological stages on the road to mastery and ultimate success.

Unconscious incompetence

The idea in this stage is that “you don’t know that you don’t know.” In other words, you do not know how to do something and you are unaware of it. Take a moment to remember a time before you learned how to drive. A time when you were not even aware that you couldn’t drive and it just didn’t matter to you. This state describes your “unconscious incompetence.” In order for you to move from this stage to the next, you would have to first recognize your incompetence and the value of the skill to be learned.

Conscious incompetence

In this second stage, the idea is this; “you know that you don’t know.” So though you do not understand or know how to do something you are aware of it. You are also aware of the value of learning the new skill in addressing the deficit. Let’s go back to the example of driving a car. One day you become intrigued by your parents or someone else driving a car and you thought, “Hey that looks cool! I wish I could do that!” Do you now remember how difficult it was multitasking, as you try to keep the vehicle on the road during your driver training? This experience is an example of how consciously aware you were of your incompetence.

Conscious competence

In the conscious competence stage, “you know how to do something.” However, demonstrating the skill requires concentration and effort. It may require you to break down the skills into steps with you having a heavy conscious involvement in the execution of the skills. As your level of competence improves, the frequency of mistakes will decline. Let’s illustrate with the learning to drive scenario. While you were having challenges with multitasking and keeping the vehicle on the road, you persevered. Your perseverance produced results, in that you got better at driving, to the point where you are now maneuvering the vehicle down the street. You are now competent, though still conscious of what you are doing.

Unconscious competence

In this fourth and final stage, “you know how to do something instinctively.” In other words you have had so much practice with the skill that it has now become second nature and can be performed easily. Let’s go back to driving. In this stage you are all ready for school or work and you just jumped into your car, turn on the ignition, step on the gas pedal and off you go. Everything just seems to happen effortlessly. You are now oblivious to all the coordination that once demanded your attention in keeping the car on the road. You are now unconsciously competent in driving a car.


Building competence to win in life requires you to accept and follow these four steps, as you move from being a novice to becoming an expert and master of your craft. Your competence plus your efforts will ultimately produce significant results in anything you do.