Are You Unconsciously Competent?
by Jake Poinier
As writers, editors, designers, publishers, and businesspeople, we’re always evolving. Pushing yourself to the next level requires understanding a psychological principle known as “The Four Stages of Competence.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it goes like this:
- Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know how to do something. You also don’t recognize that fact.
- Conscious incompetence: You understand that you don’t know how to do something. However, you still don’t know how to do it.
- Conscious competence: You know how to do something, but it takes a concerted effort.
- Unconscious competence: You understand something so well that it’s second nature. In fact, you can even teach it to someone else.
I recognize myself in all of those stages when it comes to my career, and you probably do, too. (It also applies outside of business; I’m still at Level 2 when it comes to playing the guitar, for example.)
When I started freelancing back in 1999, I’d worked for magazines and public relations and marketing/advertising firms for a decade. I’d say I was in stages 3 to 4, as far as pure writing and editing skill when I left my corporate job. When it came to running a business, however, I was somewhere in the 1 to 2 range. Sure, I had experience in various offices and industries, but when it came to the day-to-day aspects of actually running a business, I needed to increase my competence.
Sixteen years later, I know the business side of freelancing well enough to be an instructor and consultant for other freelance creatives.
Conversely, having written my first books two years ago, I recognize that I’m still on the learning curve of authorship and publishing. Whereas I can handle my corporate copywriting and editing tasks with my brain tied behind my back, it still requires conscious effort to navigate the different language, processes, and strategies of the book world.
A few years ago, Malcom Gladwell defined a “10,000-hour rule” in his book Outliers as a specific timeline for excellence in any given pursuit. If you run the numbers, the road to becoming unconsciously competent takes around 5 years (assuming you’re working at it 40 hours a week). In my view, that’s a worthwhile investment.
A freelance corporate copywriter and editor since 1999, Jake “Dr. Freelance” Poinier is the author of several books, including The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid. His publishing company, More Cowbell Books, recently published Juggling on a High Wire: The Art of Work-Life Balance When You’re Self-Employed, by Laura Poole.