"Experts say there are stages of mastering a task::
1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence..."
Betty comic strip May 1, 2013 by Gary Delainey and Gerry Ramussen
I have heard the four steps of mastering a task from many different sources. I quoted the set up from the Betty comic strip as an example of learning about comedy and entertainment by studying comic strips. My father used to jokingly refer to the newspaper comics as my "higher education." However, over the years I learned a lot about writing comedy by reading and analyzing comic strips. I have gotten specific ideas that I was able to adapt for my performances from comics. We think of comic strips as being humorous, but often the artists and writers turn serious to make the strip an expression of their philosophy or to address causes, like fighting hunger, that are important to them.
When I first became a clown I thought that I was really very good at it. I began writing some of my own material. Thinking I was that good gave me the confidence to begin pursuing clowning as a career. Looking back now I realize how bad some of those early performances actually were. If I had realized how poor I was at the time, I might not have continued. So unconscious incompetence is an important stage. It allows you to continue so you have time to begin learning before you become discouraged.
As I began listening to audience feedback, and more importantly began seeing other clowns who were more talented and skilled, I began to realize how much I needed to learn. That knocked some of the cockiness out of me. By this point I was too successful too stop. However, I was dissatisfied with the quality of my performances. Conscious Incompetence makes you willing to learn from others. I realized that I needed more training. One of the things I did was enroll in Randy Pryor's Wait, Wait, Wait School of Juggling. Under his guidance I increased my skill level, but more importantly I learned principles of showmanship. One of the things I learned from him was how to pass clubs.
When I first learned to pass clubs, I had to think about what I was doing. If we were passing every third club I had to count the throws. That meant that when something unexpected happened I wasn't able to adjust to overcome it.
Gradually as I gained more experience I didn't have to think about it. Randy had me practice catching a club by the wrong end, flip it so it was correct, and make the next throw. I did that hundreds of times. That had to become an Unconscious Skill because some of the passing patterns happened so fast that I caught a bad throw, recovered, and threw it before I had consciously realized that the club was landing the wrong way. If I had to stop to think about how to recover it would have been too late.
I try to develop all of my skills to the point of Unconscious Competence. For example, when performing a magic effect if I am not thinking about how to perform it I can be thinking about interacting with that particular audience.
Recently Don Heynen asked me if I had ever gotten out the original instructions to a magic effect I perform and discovered that I had changed it without being aware of it. That has happened to me many times. When you release conscious control of something you allow your unconscious to work on it and make changes. Often separate steps get blended into one smooth move.
How can you move through the steps of mastery? How can you learn where you are unconsciously incompetent? How can you learn to be consciously competent? How can you become unconsciously competent?