What you Don't Know - Becoming Competent in a new skill

Whenever you learn a new skill, it takes repetition to master it, for it to become automatic.  No matter how old we are, we still need to go through the same process as when were two years old learning something new. Yet as adults, we don’t have the same patience with ourselves as we did learning when we were a child. We expect to master things much quicker, after all we are not children anymore, we are adults. 

Think about how we treat a baby who is just learning how to walk.  We encourage and cheer every little attempt, whether successful or not. We totally ignore the mistakes of the little one. Are we as lovingly kind with ourselves learning a new skill as we were with this toddler?  If we were, we could master so much more than we do. We tend to be very hard on ourselves when we are learning something new as adults. ‘This doesn’t work’, or ‘I can’t do it’ may be the comments we make on the learning curve.

Let’s look at it in a different light – maybe then you will give yourself a break. Because you are older now, doesn’t mean that laws of nature change. 

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike?? 

Before you ever saw a bicycle, you were Unconsciously Incompetent. What a bicycle is and how to ride one were both unknown to you. (You don’t know what you don’t know.)

Then, say at age two, you saw another child on something on the sidewalk. They were moving their feet, pushing forward and this ‘thing’ carried them really fast. That looks like fun. It was the first time you saw a bike – and you knew you did not know how to ride it.  You were Consciously Incompetent (You know that you don’t know.)

Then about age 3 or 4, you get your first shiny little two wheel bike with training wheels. Your parents explain and show you how to balance, petal, turn and brake. So much to do at the same time!  It seemed overwhelming! You ride for 1-2 years with training wheels to get used to all the new skills you need to master and develop a sense of balance. Your parents raise the wheels a little at a time, over time so you gradually develop the necessary skills to ride safely. You are developing competency in the skill of riding a bike.

Finally, the training wheels come off.  An adult is beside you on your first few trials until you are able to maneuver yourself safely. You are exhilarated!!  Remember how that felt? You could do it yourself!  Now you know how to do it, and you have to constantly think about what you are doing. This phase of developing the skill has resulted in you becoming Consciously Competent.  You still need to think about what you are doing and you practice, practice, practice.  (You know that you know.)

Then suddenly, one day, you notice you don’t need to think about what you are doing anymore. You just jump on the bike, and you are automatically riding, balancing, steering, leaning, petaling, breaking, everything is going smoothly.  You are now Unconsciously Competent. 

When you are learning and trying new skills and techniques, it takes time and practice before you feel consciously competent, much less unconsciously competent.  So be kind to yourself, just as you lovingly would that little one on the bike. 


I remember starting to learn about meditation in the 80’s. I started with guided meditation tapes. I wanted to be able to meditate by myself (it felt like going into the jungle without a guide). Somehow, I thought I needed sensory deprivation, so I was in total silence and darkness (I sat in a closet.) I felt so foolish. I could not stop the thinking. I felt that I would never be able to meditate (consciously incompetent).  It was a lot of effort to stay focused on the journey, being still, paying attention to breath, and stay with the task called meditation. I was actually concerned about someone seeing what I was doing and laughing me. Then my mind would be busy thinking about that! So, I did not make a lot of headway until I took a series of classes. For 1-2 years we had guided meditations 2-3 times per class (practice, practice, practice.) After meditation, we each journaled our version of our meditation (I received even more insights in the journaling.) Then we each shared our journey. I found that the more I exercised this ‘meditation muscle’ the more capable I became (consciously competent)

(Just for the sake of putting a number on it) Maybe it was about the 50th meditation, I suddenly realized I could go into that space instantly. I was suddenly unconsciously competent.  Now, I can meditate anywhere – even on subways!

Author Pamela Merritt Kramer August, 2011