You all know the model, credited to Martin M Broadwell  on 1969 as the earliest explainer of the concept. How we start at unconscious incompetence (not knowing what we don’t know), to conscious incompetence (knowing what we need to know), through conscious competence (knowing and thinking about what we’re doing) before the formerly acknowledged top level of unconscious competence, when we can do what we do without thinking about it.

(Of course, when Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney explained that to the inherently biased left-wing media, they displayed their ignorance by taking the mick.)

We tend to prize the level of unconscious competence because it implies we have transcended the intellect, that we are so good we don’t need to focus attention on the competence, and that we are at the flow level, executing to the highest degree.


If we settle at unconscious competence being the best we can be, we stifle our personal growth because we have settled, in our minds, any debt we feel to get even better.

No, the top level (and this is supported by Dr Stephen Covey, Leadership Expert) is conscious competence. And it is also the hardest.

Why is that? It is because it could be argued that TRUE conscious competence IS conscious incompetence.

And no-one wants to admit to incompetence, surely?

Look at conscious competence like this. It means three things – first that we know what to do something and how to do it, but also why to do it, why it works. And thirdly, how to explain and/or teach it to other people. Marvellous.

But the higher level, surely, must be the ability to look at what we are doing and develop new ways of thinking about it and new ways to execute, or even finding new uses for what we’re doing. That’s a whole level of thinking that is higher than unconscious competence, which is something rats can do when they go a-huntin’. That requires awareness that there is something better – which is knowledge yet to be obtained.

The reason that conscious competence is so hard is because all too often we know what to do and why to do it, can teach it and want to do it – but won’t.

If you consider a specific skill, then conscious competence is easy. Take widget, turn crank, ta-daaa.

But in terms of holistic living, not so much.

Example? People know smoking is bad and could stop – but don’t. People who feel really bad after a drinking binge – and do it every weekend. Overweight people who know exercise is good for them – but if they could, would park their cars in their office or living room rather than walk the length of a car park.

You see, those four intellectual levels of learning apply just as much to ‘being’ as they do to performing. And while being able to teach that stuff shows great competence, knowing what you’re not doing and then really, consciously doing it is the best way forward.