How can socially inexperienced folks get around “conscious incompetence”?

[NB this is meant to be Monday’s post, I have just been really bad at organising my thoughts and my time this week. Expect Thursday’s post on Friday or Saturday. As usual!]

Last week, I wrote about why we should reject the idea of “conscious incompetence” as a stage of learning. I argued that a more productive way to learn is to get good at the next step and described how learning guitar and learning to drive a car were two examples of how this worked for me.

However, I thought it worthwhile looking back and seeing what might be the difference between playing guitar (or driving a car) and socialising or dating/”pick-up”. Is there a reason why coaches and advice-givers choose to talk in terms of “you have to suck before you can be good”. Is there a reason why the logic that seems to work for other skills cannot be applied to teaching social/dating skills as well?

The first idea that springs to mind is simply that people are expected to know how to do these things already. There are some people out there who describe shy men as being those who didn’t learn in high school that it’s the man’s job to take the lead, ask a girl out, etc. The general implication is that during your teenaged years, you’re supposed to pick up various rules and talents as regards socialising and be “ready to go” by the time you hit university, or at least, by the time you’ve finished. The skill is just supposed to “be there”, like walking (if you’re TAB).

One reason why you can impress your friends with your hesitant three-chord song performance after just an hour or two with the “teach yourself” book is that they don’t know anything about playing guitar, whereas you know three chords and can almost string them together. You’ve got something more than they do. But when you are just learning how to socialise, or date, then most people know how to do that already. “Look, I can walk AND chew gum!”

But that doesn’t work. The same is true of learning to drive. Most people learn as soon as it is legal to do so in their country. Some have the opportunity before it’s legal on the roads, if their family owns private land to practise on. Even so, learning to drive had the same structure as learning to guitar. I felt cleverer and better off than when I started each lesson. Even more so, if we take the example of some adult who hasn’t learned to read or write and decides finally to acquire these skills. Now, we can picture that this person may well receive the same reaction of “so what? So can everybody else” if zie shows off the early stages (say, writing the alphabet and sounding the letters). But I’m willing to guess that on the lesson when zie learns the sounds and the symbols, and maybe spells out a word for the first time, that zie feels the same way as I felt in my first driving lesson. And then you get to reading and writing simple words and being able to figure some things out in the real world, and you’re away. Zie may never catch up with some people, but being able to read and write functionally in the world is no small thing. Likewise, being able to interact socially and chat up and date women is no small thing in this world, even if you will never be (and may never aspire to be) a “life of the party” guy or a “pulling machine”.

Maybe it is not so much that it is something we already have, but rather that it’s something that people see in practice as you learn. Learning guitar, you can sit in your bedroom away from everyone else and keep at it until you get that first song down (to the point where you only have to stop for a few seconds to find the next chord, anyway) with no mistakes. Learning to drive, you only have an instructor in the car with you, and zie is always going to focus on the positive. Learning to read and write, you sit in a classroom and practise at home and don’t have to show anyone unless you’re sure you’ll get a positive response.

But when you learn to socialise, you have to go out into the real social world to work on it. All the advice says that sitting at home and reading, thinking about it, and so on, gets you nowhere (and don’t I know it). But that’s like being a hesitant three-chord guitar learner at an open-mic night surrounded by people who have been strumming all their lives. If you try to join in their jam session, everyone will notice all your mistakes and when you just can’t keep up. They might not say anything, but you can bet there will be looks every time the discordant notes jangle from your instrument. You go home feeling like the worst guitarist ever and never ever going to fit in.

Certainly, that is how come you can end up feeling like you’re rubbish, and end up in that “conscious incompetence” mindset. It doesn’t fully explain for me why it has to be that way. For instance, ukulele players of all levels of experience were welcomed as part of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s concert for the Proms (I forget if that was last year or the year before? I think I’m getting old). With parts arranged for varying skill levels, it was possible for beginners and experienced pros to unite at a level suited to themselves and produce a rendition of Beethoven’s famous “Ode To Joy”, from the his 9th symphony. There are ways to make it work well, if everyone is on the same page about the purpose. But in general, social events do not have that structured level of involvement.

The reason that struck me most strongly as I considered all these issues is hinted at in Doctor Nerdlove’s post where he outlines the “4 Stages” theory that includes conscious incompetence. He writes:

Dating is complicated.

Now, before you roll your eyes at me and reach for the “back” button on your browser, let me explain where I’m going with this.

The components of dating – where to meet people, how to get to know them off a cold or warm approach the different aspects of attraction, even how to act on dates can seem pants-shittingly intimidating. After all, when you’re socially inexperienced, how are you supposed to keep all of this in mind and talk to your date and still have a good time and secure that next date and and…


One of the best ways to pick up a new skill is to, simply, break it down. Strip out the extraneous parts and just focus on the core. You can work outwards from there as you become more at ease.

Of course, this is the approach to learning to play guitar, learning to drive, etc. But what we also notice is that at each stage of working outwards, there is something new that you couldn’t do before – some new benefit or result that you can point to and say, “This is what I can achieve now that I couldn’t before.” I can play three chords. I can make the car start and stop when I want it to. I can write the alphabet. Whatever it happens to be.

What, then, is the smallest and simplest social skill that could be learned and put into practice without exposing what you don’t know? I don’t know, but it isn’t “saying hello”, because normally “hello” is followed by having a conversation.

(At this point, most of the advisers I still bother to read at all talk about how this is where pick-up artist routines and suchlike come in, and how they are a bridge to get you over that gap of not being good at anything else yet. Can we just assume I’ve done that whole spiel? You can find examples at Doctor Nerdlove’s blog if you really want to read through it.)

Speaking of Doctor Nerdlove, he actually seems to tackle the whole “smallest possible unit” thing in a piece called Talking To Women… For The First Time. It’s a pretty good description of the concept, start with simple interactions like asking for the time, or directions, and work upwards. But DNL treats this as desensitisation rather than skill development, and still says that this will be followed by or involve the conscious incompetence phase. In this piece, he says both at once! (Points 2, 3 and 5 especially in that article.)

I feel as though I am still at the hesitant three-chord stage of learning socialising and dating. For that reason, I can’t talk about how to work around the difficulties. I believe that having that “This is an outcome I couldn’t achieve before” is important, so I hope someone will figure out a way to make each stage work like that instead of being conscious of how rubbish you are.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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