Conscious incompetence

Career changes are complicated, and since I started at the BBC I’ve gone through various emotional cycles. It’s simultaneously exciting and frightening to push yourself outside your comfort zone, and I think it’s fair to say that I’d gotten very accustomed to being an expert in my domain. Not being an expert all the time is still, after more than six months, something I’m getting used to.

I’m also in an unusual position in terms of how my job’s set up. Unlike my previous role, where I led a department of several dozen people, I currently have no direct line management reports – though plenty of leadership responsibility. I’m in a position where most of my time needs to be spent persuading and influencing, rather than actively doing, and that adjustment also takes some time and forces me to exercise different skills.

This week, thanks to a colleague, I was reminded of the concept of the four stages of competence. This is a longstanding theory about how we learn new skills and new things. We start with unconscious incompetence, where we have no idea of what we’re doing and we also don’t know how much we don’t know. From there we move to conscious incompetence – the “oh, shit” period – where the scale of what we don’t know starts to become clear. Then, with luck, we get to conscious competence, where we can do the thing but we have to focus and it takes effort. Then finally unconscious competence, where the whole thing just feels natural.

I think I’ve reached the point of conscious incompetence with a lot of new things. The key is finding joy in that, and knowing that it’s a crucial step towards building expertise.