How to keep learning, or why you should forget “Conscious Incompetence”

One thing that comes up in various forms of dating advice, including but not limited to, PUA, is the concept of “you have to get worse before you get better”. This is often expressed in terms of a cycle of capability versus awareness. For example, Doctor Nerdlove describes the theory thus:

There are four stages of learning a skill: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence. That is, you’re unaware of what it takes to do something, you’re aware that can’t do it, you know what you need to do but you have to think it through and then finally, being able to do something as naturally as breathing. has used the same formulation and referred to “conscious incompetence” as “first stop: Shit Town”. Other sites have other terms or ways of referencing the same basic concept. I wasn’t sure about this idea, and ironically it was a piece that clued me into what I felt was going wrong with it. Andy Yosha – the founder of the business – said it was like learning to play guitar. Now, I learned to play guitar and it was nothing like the experience that these advice-givers suggest.

Presumably the idea is that a person who has never played guitar imagines that they will pick up the instrument and in no time at all be able to perform licks like Eddie Van Halen or Eric Clapton or someone more up to date. Then when that doesn’t happen, they get discouraged. Call that the “Bart Simpson School of Rock”, as in:

Homer: How come you don’t play your guitar any more?

Bart: Promise you won’t get mad? I wasn’t good at it right away, so I quit.

Homer: If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing

But that’s not what I see when I see people learning to play guitar, and it’s not what happened to me when I learned to play guitar either.

What I see, and what happened to me, is this:

Buy a “Teach Yourself Guitar” book. Learn three chords (usually D, G and A, sometimes G, C and D – for best results it ought to be A, D and E but most books want to teach you folk songs first). Strum the first chord. Spend a whole bar or two finding the fingering for the second chord, and strum that one. Now do the same for the third chord. And back to the first one again.

Now you know enough to play your first song. You say to your mates, “Look what I can do!”

[Strum the first chord] [Sing the first line of the song] “Err…” [find the fingering for the second chord]
[Strum the second chord] [Sing the second line of the song] “Umm…” [Usually it’s back to the first chord at this point]
[Strum again] [Sing the third line of the song]

And so on.

That’s not impressive. It’s not Eric Clapton. It’s not even Status Quo, Oasis or Bob Dylan (if you learned G, C and D you’re probably going to tackle “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” fairly soon, though). But it’s a shitload better than what your friends can do, and they know it. And you go away feeling like a rock star because you played a song on the guitar for your mates. And then you practice.

Pretty soon, you can get to that second chord before you finish singing the first line of the song. And you’ve learned another song using the same chords (“Look at this!”) And then you can actually strum twice, or four times, before changing chords. Then you start doing complicated things like changing chords halfway through a line of the song (this is when you start looking at Bob Dylan songs in the book – “Blowin’ In The Wind” is another common teaching tool). Your fingertips are probably getting blisters by now, and eventually developing a hard pad of skin if you keep going, but you’ve just learned a whole new chord and another song, too, so it seems worth it.

So you keep practising, and before you know it you can strum a proper rhythm to accompany the songs you know, and you learn a couple of popular songs that people actually know. Now when your friends ask you round, they say, “Bring your guitar, show us what you’ve learned now!” And they’re singing along when you play, because you can hold a rhythm and a tune.

You’re a long way from getting four “Yes” votes at the X Factor auditions, but you’re the Rock God of your friends group. Every time you learn a new song, or a new technique (arpeggio-style finger picking is just around the corner, and then you can do all the candlelit ballads as well) you get a new boost of achievement, and something you can show to your friends.

Some people are happy to stop there. Strum a few chords and have a sing-along with their friends. Some work a bit harder, actually form a band, or go to musician’s circles and jam a bit so it becomes instinctive and effortless. Some put their new skill to use to write songs. Some work really hard and get to be an actual Rock God, or at least, get those four “Yes” votes on X Factor.

The point is, none of this involves feeling like shit, or incompetent, or like you can’t do something. From that very first step, you know you’ve achieved something. After that, the only question is how much more you want to achieve. It’s certainly hard, that’s why you have to take all that time getting from one chord to the next when you first start. But even trying is impressive. Even getting to that second chord, when you’re a beginner, and showing your mates for the first time, is an achievement, and it feels like it. You know it’s hard, but you don’t know you’re rubbish – you know you’re less rubbish than everyone else in the room. (Unless one of your friends also plays guitar, in which case they’ll still applaud your achievement.)

You learn and keep learning because from the very start, your effort is rewarded. It was hard learning those three chords and how to get from one to the other. You still had to look down, maybe even use your right hand to put your left hand fingers into the proper places, but you still rocked. You managed to play that song and sing it (with short interludes). You achieved something good and you fucking know it.

Another great example of this curve is when I learned to drive. The first time I sat at the wheel of a car do you think I felt, “OMG, I’m useless, my first lesson and I can’t corner like a rally driver yet”? No, I felt, “Wow, I actually drove a fucking car today. I made it start and stop and turn round a corner using proper technique on the steering wheel. I learned how to put it in gear and use the clutch. I didn’t blow it up or crash into a tree. I’m BRILLIANT”. And in the next lesson, I learned how to use the accelerator, and changed up into second gear, and down again. I did more corners. I may even have done a hill start (I forget exactly what happened in which lessons). You still wouldn’t let me drive on the main roads, but round the deserted backstreets of the suburbs it was amazing. So I kept practising, and I got better. I had more lessons and learned more techniques, more gears, became more aware of the road and how to interact with it. And before long, I was able to go out on the main road. 60mph up the bypass, 70mph down the dual carriageway. Sweeeeeet.

Now, I was still having to think through every move when I was driving – which is to say, “conscious competence” in the schema outlined at the start – when I ran out of money for driving lessons and never actually passed my test as a result. But the point is, again, that I never felt like I was a shit driver. I never felt like I was incompetent behind the wheel. I was aware in those first lessons that I wasn’t going near the highway until I’d learned a lot more, but I was still feeling like a more competent driver than I was when the closest I came to driving was playing Gran Turismo. Again, it wasn’t big on the grand scheme of things, but I had achieved something positive.

So to me it seems barmy to build a learning programme on the idea that you’re going to start off feeling shit and receiving only negative feedback about what you can’t do yet. You’re just asking for the Bart Simpson response to the skill.

The sources cited at the top (Dr Nerdlove and suggest using other, related, skills to get into that feeling of achievement rather than incompetence. Things like striking up conversations with a waitress or checkout operator, for example. For me, these are related but distinct skills – like playing the recorder instead of the guitar (not even as close as, “playing violin instead of guitar”). Yes, a background in music makes it easier to learn a new instrument, but the fingering, and even mindset, is completely different and you’re still going to be at that [strum first chord][pause][strum second chord] phase for a while.

So the tricky question that I can’t answer is, when it comes to dating/socialising, is there a way to get the sense of achievement that shows that the skill is learnable, instead of the “I suck” that discourages it? Something that gives a positive, reinforcing feedback instead of a negative , weakening one?

The broader lesson is simply, you keep learning by celebrating the small steps – learning three chords, or just successfully starting the engine.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Dating, Music, SCW, Social so-called life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to keep learning, or why you should forget “Conscious Incompetence”

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