Conscious competence makes the best teachers

3 minute read

“I don’t think I’m good at this yet. I’m still working on it and I’ve got a lot to learn”.
A variation of this sentence is something I hear a lot, and every time it’s coming from someone that is especially good ad the thing we were talking about. The very first time I heard it years ago I was stunned: how is it possible? They are really good at it, and yet, they think they aren’t. This relates to the impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect for sure, but what’s even more interesting in this scenario to me is the difference between conscious competence and unconscious competence.

An unconsciously competent person is someone that is a “natural” at some skill. It’s the kind of person that has always been pretty good at that, likely even as a kid, and they just do it without a second thought. They tend to take it for granted in themselves, and can get frustrated by other people struggling with it. Often this can translate to good social or career success based on this skill.

A consciously competent person is someone that wasn’t good at a specific skill, but was very motivated to improve it. They studied, they practiced, they put consistent effort into it. They tend to have a heightened sense of how difficult it is to master the skill — they don’t consider themselves good at it yet. With their improved ability, they too might have reached good social or career success.

Let’s take public speaking as an example. Some people are naturals. They engage very well with people, are outward and sociable, and they always seem to be able to say the right thing to get the people listen. They are unconsciously competent at it, and it comes instinctive to them. They haven’t learned it, they just do it. Others instead feel very anxious taking a microphone or going on stage, or even having the attention of a small group of people. They practice what to say, how to move, they take classes, and practice their talks for days. 

What’s interesting here is that when we see these two people practicing their skill, they might look almost identical and reach the same level of proficiency. There’s no way to evaluate the different path they followed to become that good. Sure, you can consider one being more lucky than the other — how much time they saved! — but the other person user the time well as they learned something beyond the skill itself: they learned how to learn that skill.

However, consciously competent people tend to see themselves as students for longer. As such they are unlikely to step up in teaching situations or provide their expert help. This is a shame for two reasons:

  1. They know how to learn the skill, and they are able to provide guidance. They did it, they hit walls while doing it, they can provide that guidance — in short, they can empathize on how hard it is.
  2. People that have just learned something are among the most suited to teach someone else right after. For another person learning, following a fellow learner can be incredibly valuable. On the other side, the very act of sharing knowledge helps learning things better. There’s no need to be a master to be able to share knowledge.

Meanwhile, unconsciously competent people will have a really hard time teaching someone else. They have no idea how they picked up the skill, because from their perspective “it just happened”, and as such they can’t provide guidance to other people. To teach someone, they have to go through almost the same learning process as anyone else, or find a way to teach the skill on their own.

We can enrich the work and life of each other if we help consciously competent people to notice the value they can share:

  • Reflect on the things you learned, even the ones that were hard for you to learn. Are you consciously competent in something? Are you still considering yourself a “student”?
  • Reflect back the knowledge people have. Some people aren’t aware of the expertise they have. You can help them notice, showing them how much they know compared to others.

Thanks to Cate Huston for the discussion that made this concept emerge, and for the “conscious competent” terminology.