Maslow’s Stages of Skill Learning: Are You a Conscious or Unconscious Writer?
by Mary Ellen Stepanich
Abraham Maslow, creator of the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, also proposed a model describing the stages of learning a skill. Recently, I became reacquainted with this model while watching a DVD from The Great Courses titled, “Mastering Stage Presence.” I began to think of this model from the perspective of learning and mastering the skill of writing for publication.
The four stages of learning skills are: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and finally Unconscious Competence. In the first stage, Unconscious Incompetence, a person doesn’t know how to do something, such as writing for publication, and is not really aware that she doesn’t possess that skill. (Perhaps you encountered someone like that in your first writers group.) In the next stage, Conscious Incompetence, the learner becomes aware that he doesn’t yet possess the skill, but he strives to develop it, perhaps by attending writing classes and conferences, as well as reading voraciously the work of accomplished writers.
Then, after a great deal of practice, the writer hones her skills and writes with Conscious Competence, but she has to focus on what she is writing, perhaps with the advice and guidance of critique groups. Her inner “self editor” is constantly aware of, and critical of, her newly acquired skill. After some time passes and with continued practice and application, the writer becomes Unconsciously Competent, writing with ease and aplomb, producing publishable work with seemingly little effort. At least, that’s how we readers (and struggling writers) think of our favorite authors.
When I was a young girl, I was enthralled by the Nancy Drew mysteries, and over the years I progressed to Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. As an adult, I enjoyed the “Murder She Wrote” television broadcasts and the book series by Donald Bain. Deep within my psyche, an ambitious seed began to develop. I wanted to be a writer. Of course, I knew very little about the skill of writing; I just knew what I liked about the finished product. I was an Unconscious Incompetent.
Soon, I began to imitate some of my favorite authors, such as Dave Barry and P. D. Q. Bach (Peter Schickele) in writing comedy scripts for my barbershop chorus and quartet shows, but I knew I was not skilled enough to attempt anything as ambitious as writing a novel or a play. I was Conscious of my Incompetence.
However, an opportunity presented itself that led to my decision to grow and develop that seed of desire to become a writer. I was a volunteer reader at Sun Sounds of Arizona, radio for the blind. One of the other volunteers, who wrote and directed radio plays, became ill, and she implored me to take on the project of writing a play to be broadcast on Veterans Day. She had the germ of an idea but was too ill to give me much help. With the aid of four other volunteers who acted the roles, and a brilliant audio technician, I wrote and produced the radio play, “Voices from the Front,” which won the Program of the Year Award from the International Association of Audio Information Services. I became Conscious that (perhaps) I had some Competence as a writer.
It remains to be seen whether or not I will ever attain the rank of Unconscious Competence, or to become so skilled as a writer that I don’t have to constantly self-edit. Probably, I will bounce back and forth between Conscious Incompetence and (maybe) Conscious Competence. And I’ll be very happy with that.
After all, I don’t really have to leap tall buildings in a single bound…or write a New York Times best seller before I die. (But the latter would be nice.)
Dr. Mary Ellen Stepanich is a retired professor of organizational behavior who always told her students at Purdue, “I’m very organized, but my behavior is a bit wonky.” She has published articles in academic journals (boring), show scripts for barbershop choruses and quartets (funny), and an award-winning radio play, “Voices from the Front,” for Sun Sounds of Arizona (heartrending). Mary Ellen lives in Peoria, Arizona, with her cat, Cookie, and blogs on her website, MaryEllenStepanich.com.