Unconscious Competence. Must-Have? Nice-To-Have?

When discussing topics like “multi-tasking”, one of the things I raise is that we ought, not to “multi-task”, but to achieve proficiency in as many relevant competencies as possible, to the extent that those competencies, which may involve processes, become, as it were, “automatic”. I like to illustrate this by using the autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the conscious commands sent to our muscles, meaning what are known as the “striated” muscles like those moving our skeleton, those orientating our eyes, tongue, and which we consciously control. The autonomic nervous system controls things like our alimentary canal, cardiac muscle and so on. You can’t control your heart muscles, right? No, I don’t mean taking deep breaths and going into your “emotional foxhole” to slow down your heartbeat. I mean, we don’t control whether we want our hearts to beat at 70 beats per minute or 80 beats per minute. Neither are we able to control the dilation of our pupils. The autonomic nervous system is analogous to “unconscious competence” and the sympathetic nervous system analogous to “conscious competence”. We were at “conscious incompetence” when we were learning how to walk and when we were learning how to ride a bicycle.

I don’t know why this is even discussed, actually. Unconscious competence ought to be de rigeur as we grow older and mature, regardless whether we are 15 or 50. Here’s a model for illustrating which I thought you might find useful.

Unconscious Competence

Achieving unconscious competence in one or even some things is not where it all ends, our crowning glory. No, the world is a whole lot bigger than that! As we achieve conscious competence in a certain field or process or endeavour, we will sooner or later discover that there is, in fact, a lot more to learn and get better at. Surprise, but we will also learn that most of what we learn has parallels with our core business functions. Let me give you a simple example. You know what a sonnet is, right? A fourteen-line poem , each of whose lines must be in iambic pentameter. This means that each line must go like this: Da-da…da-da…da-da…da-da…da-da. Other than that, you are free to say whatever you want. Would be nice if it did make some sense and actually rhymes, but you get the point. Can you extrapolate this to your business processes? Let me know!

In the model, when we learn that there is something new that we might have to or that we might like to master, we fall back down to conscious incompetence, because we then know that we have to start all over again. Unconscious incompetence is then the area where we ought to be competent at some things or competencies, but which we may not have realized yet. They are still in our blind spots. Otherwise, unconscious incompetence would almost comprise a universal set!

I hope you found this useful for you. Do let me know your thoughts!

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