All Experts Were Once Beginners

When you recognize this simple fact (that all experts were once beginners), you begin to have a little more patience dealing with those around you.  I’ve shared the following “Competence Cycle” with you once before, but it’s so important, it’s worth revisiting.  As people learn how to do new tasks, they will go through four predictable stages related to their confidence and competence.  The leader’s role is to help them progress through the four stages without damaging their self-confidence or causing too much risk to the those around them.

Competence Cycle

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence
At this stage, the performer has little concept of what the task is actually going to entail. He is incredibly excited about it and feels enormous confidence that he is up to the task.  The problem is that this confidence is rarely based on reality.  The confidence comes from ignorance of the skills, knowledge and hard work necessary to complete the task.  Often, performers feel that success in previous endeavors will guarantee success in this one.  Sometimes they are right, but most often they are not.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence
This stage is typically a huge letdown for the performer.  The high expectations he/she had have not materialized. The task is harder, bigger, less glamorous, more work…you name it.  They’ve made a big step, though.  Just recognizing that you don’t have the skill set or knowledge for the task is the first step toward getting them.  Now they know what they don’t know.  As long as the performer doesn’t regress to Stage 1 (i.e., go into denial about the skills and knowledge he needs), you’ve got him right where you want him.  Now that he knows he won’t be the next prodigy, he will typically be much more teachable.  What he needs from you is encouragement.  His confidence has been dealt a blow, and he needs to know that this is a normal stage…that all experts were once beginners. Keep the end result in front of him to motivate him through this stage.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence
Progress has been made.  The performer has developed the competence to be able to perform the task.  The problem here is that the performer has to really concentrate on the steps to get it done.  She will typically be hesitant and afraid of making mistakes.  She might over-think the process, leading to avoidable errors and frustration.  Your role as the leader will be to be patient and allow her plenty of practice.  She may need a pep talk from time to time to remind her of how far she has come.  This is a necessary stage.  If she starts making too many mistakes in a row, her confidence could be seriously damaged. Give her a break so that she can get her mind off all the steps.  When she relaxes, she will perform better.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence
Eureka! You’ll rarely recognize the transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4 when it happens, but you’ll be able to see it in retrospect.  One day, you’ll observe the performer, and she will be performing the task without even thinking about it.  Be sure to point it out to her, because she probably won’t have realized it yet.  The beauty of this stage is that the new skills and knowledge have been integrated into the performer’s skill set.  She is now the expert that she originally set out to be!
Let’s see if this applies to even the incomparable Michael Jordan, leader of the six-time national champion Chicago Bulls team of the 90s.   Most would agree that, at the top of his game, Michael Jordan was Unconsciously Competent at basketball.  He could do just about anything he pleased on the court.  He didn’t have to count the number of steps before he made a lay-up (everyone knows he flew from half-court).  He didn’t have to think through his set-up before making the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.  He just did it – Unconscious Competence.

But remember, all experts were once beginners.  There was a time that MJ thought he was better than he really was.  He had the natural talent, but it wasn’t disciplined.  Going into high school, MJ was Unconsciously Incompetent about playing basketball.  Want proof?  Did you know that his game was so undisciplined that he was cut from his sophomore team?

It was a real wake-up call for him, and he moved immediately to Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence.  But instead of letting that setback defeat him, he used it to motivate and challenge him to move through Stages 3 and 4 until he became the face of basketball (and Fruit of the Loom, and Gatorade, and Nike, and MCI, and …).  He lit up college basketball, was drafted as the #3 pick to the pros after his junior year and reached the pinnacle of his career by winning three, back-to-back national championships with the Bulls.

Then, full of the confidence that comes with incredible success, he decided that the skills that made him the best in professional basketball would also make him the best in professional baseball.  But being an expert in one field doesn’t make a person an expert in all fields.  The expert turned beginner, and MJ had to start the cycle all over again.  First, there was excitement and over-confidence.  Then, a major letdown as he got stuck in the minors with the Birmingham Barons.

Sometimes Stage 2 is enough to convince a performer he is better suited for something else.  MJ decided the following year that basketball was what he was really suited for, and he returned to help the Chicago Bulls win another three back-to-back championships.

Pick any expert in any field, and you’ll find that none of them were born that way.  Even the prodigies had to hone and shape their talent.  If it’s true for the most talented, it’s true for the average performer.  The best leaders know this and meet their performers where they are at.



Filed under coaching, expertise, failure, growth, leadership, management, mentoring, performance

2 responses to “All Experts Were Once Beginners

  1. Larry Looker


    Good to see you are still teaching good stuff very well.

    Hope all is well with you and your family.


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