Achieving Enlightened Competence

Have you ever noticed that whether you are learning to drive your new car or learning to speak a new language or even when you are learning to apply a new behavior, it challenges many parts of your brain? While learning new skills or modified behaviors, your brain experiences progressive stages of development of competence. As your brain follows step-by-step instructions, your body learns new muscle movements and thought processes on how to apply them in practice. The new skill now becomes more like second nature. You no longer have to think while enacting your newly learnt skill or behavior. If the human brain could understand the stages of competence development, it may acquire the infinite power to tweak and adjust the application of new skills.

In 1940s, the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated his theory of “Four Stages of Learning.” Later, Noel Burch from US Gordon Training International played a key role in defining and further developing the “Four Stages of Conscious Competence Theory.” It was published in the early 70’s in the Teacher Effectiveness Training Instructor Guide that learning of any new skill involved four progressive stages: 1) unconsciously unskilled, 2) consciously unskilled, 3) consciously skilled, and 4) unconsciously skilled. In 1982, Madeline Hunter referred to these stages of development of competence as the ways of knowing.

In order to help one analyze at which stage he is at, we must discuss in detail what these progressive stages of development of competence are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

This is the stage where the human brain is blissfully unaware of what it does not know. At this stage, the human brain does not understand its blind spot or what deficiency it has in particular skill sectors. Since the human brain is not aware of its own deficiency, it is also not aware of the need to develop that skill or competence or what benefit that skill can bring to the being to enhance his personal effectiveness. Any person can make an effort to learn a new skill only if he becomes conscious of what competence he lacks. It is very unlikely that any person in this stage of competence can apply any thought processes to acquire the skill to achieve desired outcomes. People in this stage are not high achievers.

2. Conscious Incompetence

This is the stage in which the human brain knows that it has a deficiency in certain skills which it needs to develop if the being has to perform more effectively. 

There is a painful realization in this stage and the mind is in a state of controlled floundering about where the being is and where he ought to be in future. In this stage, the brain makes attempts to assess the extent of its deficiency and level of commitment that will be required to develop the new competency. 

It is necessary for the human brain to pass through this stage before moving to the next stage of conscious competence when the human brain begins to form new neural networks.

2. Conscious Competence

This is stage where the being consciously tries to practice the new skill with concentration and intense focus. The being gradually learns to perform the skill without guidance or help, but after conscious thinking only.  The human brain needs to practice the new skill continuously to establish such habits over the time, which will help the brain to implement the skill at an unconscious competence level.

4. Unconscious Competence

When the human brain is at this stage, the being has already developed competence at such levels where the desired actions to execute the skill have become internalized by constant practice as second nature.  The being is able to perform the skill effortlessly without having to think about his actions or what he has to do next. When the being has achieved such competence, he is able to multitask and perform the skill while doing something else. For example, someone who has acquired competence in driving at >unconscious competence level may now be able to hold business negotiations with person sitting next to him in the car while driving at the same time. He no longer needs to drive with conscious attention on driving alone.

This is the stage where most people want to be. However, most people who acquire this stage of unconscious competence are not able to teach others how they have performed a given skillful act. The thought patterns involved in performing such skillful act become so much internalized at the intuitive level of the being that it becomes difficult for the performer to recognize and explain these thought processes to others in sequential manner how he did it.

Furthermore, people in the leadership positions and the high achievers may not be happy in this state of being because when the skillful actions are performed at intuitive level without thinking, repeated performance of the same skill in a different situation is not guaranteed. 

5. Enlightened Competence

This stage was not explained originally in the Four Stages of Conscious Competence Theory proposed by US Gordon Training International and was added by Lorgene A Mata, PhD, in 2004.

This is the stage higher and above unconscious competence and has been achieved only by a few skillful people, thus far. With the passage of time, the norms and standards of skillful behavior or desirable outcomes are redefined by evolving human society. The human brain which has acquired unconscious competence to perform skills at intuitive level in previous situations may find itself unable to replicate the same skill on sustained and successful basis when confronted with the new situations or new environment.

In order to acquire the state of enlightened competence, the human brain needs to reach a mindful state where it can reflect and think while performing the skill to direct the knowledge acquired by past experience. Then brain has to use this knowledge to modify and tweak the actions and behavior of the being to achieve the desired outcomes in new situations.

When the being has acquired enlightened competence, then the human brain has reached a stage where it can reapply what it knows to get the desired outcome each time, without any doubt or fear!


Dickmann MH, Blair NS (2001). Connecting Leadership to the Brain. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Hunter M. (1982). Mastery teaching: Increasing instructional effectiveness in elementary and secondary schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hunter R. (2004). Madeline Hunter’s mastery teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Simi Agarwal, DDS

Simi Agarwal, DDS, is a dental surgeon and published medical writer from the University of Pune, Medical & Dental College and Hospital. She is certified by the General Dental Council, London and is a member of the Indian Medical (Dental) Association. She has been a regular contributor to several medical websites and blogs.
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