Starting something new.

It’s supposed to be challenging.

Remember when you were learning how to drive? The thousand things running through your head? Check the rearview mirror, check the side mirror, check the blind spot, where are my hands, where is the car in front of me going, look where I want to go, slow down into a curve, accelerate out of a curve, keep two car lengths ahead, brake with plenty of time, signal before changing lanes, ease off the clutch while pressing down on the gas, listen for the engine sound to change, do you need to change gears, does that pedestrian see you, check for cyclists, don’t drive in a trucks blind spot.

You get the idea.

We are constantly checking off a huge checklist of things we absolutely need to do to be safe while driving. And then with time and practice, we aren’t. We are chatting with our passengers, thinking about work, relationships, solving the world’s problems, drinking coffee, sometimes we even arrive somewhere, not having paid attention to how we got there. The new and incredibly complex thing we have learned has become automatic.

The same holds true for starting a business, choosing a career, learning a new skill, starting a new role. There is a learning model that has been around in the training world since the late ’60s that is still highly relevant today. It’s called the 4 steps to Mastery. Whenever you decide to learn something new, choose a career, start a business, there are various steps that you are going to go through.

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Steps to Mastery Model

Step One: Unconscious Incompetence.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Everything is possible. This is the exciting part where business ideas are hatched, ideas are formed, big commitments are made. This step is where knowledge gaps are not on the radar. For example, you might have gotten a promotion; you’ve been an individual contributor for a few years and feel ready to step into a management role, but you might not really understand exactly what a management job looks like. Another example: When you were 10 and decided to be an actor. You didn’t know what was involved, you just knew you wanted it.

Step Two: Conscious Incompetence.

You know what you don’t know. At this step, you are starting to see the bigger picture, what you need to know, and an awareness of the knowledge gap. This is the hard part. This is where failure can happening. You are on your learning edge. It’s also the step where businesses fail, people give up. An example: You might decide to strike out on your own as a personal trainer. You have great clients, you’ve well respected — but you have no idea how to manage your books. The work to bridge the knowledge gap and a better understanding of what actually needs to happen can be overwhelming. The good news is at this stage, the less you know, the more room there is to grow. Simply recognizing that this is the stage you are in can be helpful, while you continue to learn and grow.

Step Three: Conscious Competence.

You know what you know. You have the skill, but it hasn’t become consistent or routine. That is the satisfying part. You see continuous incremental improvements. This is the stage for to-do lists and checklists. You know you can do what needs to be done, you just need to focus and pay attention. An example: You’ve completed your certification in project management. You know what you need to do to succeed, but until you’ve managed enough projects, you rely on your training and systems.

Step Four: Unconscious Competence.

You don’t think about what you know. The skills are habitual or automatic. Your conscious mind is free to focus on other things. We have mastered the task, and no longer need continuous focus. An example: An experienced driver can get to a destination without actively thinking about driving, they can focus on thinking, conversations. Once a skill becomes a habit, our tendency is to forget the journey to get there. It’s important to stop occasionally and celebrate the learning you’ve done.

When learning something new, or starting something new, it can be incredibly useful to pause and assess where you are on the steps to mastery. It can be helpful to know that you are in the weeds in step two, but that step three is inevitable if you persist. It can be incredibly rewarding to stop and recognize that something you couldn’t do 6 months ago, is now entirely possible.

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