Highly successful and wealthy individuals share a strong drive to keep learning and improving key aspects of their lives. This lifelong learning fuels their curiosity and motivates them to strive for greater success and significance, creating a positive loop of continuous improvement. Effective lifelong learners approach their education systematically, using structured and repeatable methods.

Four Stages of Learning and Developing

Everyone is both a potential learner and a potential leader, often adopting both roles simultaneously. As you build competence in one area, you can help others develop skills they lack. To maximize potential, focus on progressing through four distinct stages of learning, from incompetence to competence. Initially, individuals are unaware of their lack of knowledge. As they recognize their incompetence, they intentionally acquire and practice new skills until these skills become automatic. This process applies equally to personal development and leadership. For lifelong learners, there are four stages of development for maximizing our competence.

The Four Stages of Learning

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: The person does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize this fact.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: The person is aware of what they don’t know. Commonly, this creates anxiety in the person.
  3. Conscious Competence: The person knows how to do the task or understands the skill but cannot yet do it easily. Frustration is a common feeling at this stage.
  4. Unconscious Competence: The person has practiced the skill or task so much that it becomes essentially automatic or “second nature” to perform. Reaching such mastery helps fuel further curiosity about what else there is to know, learn and master.

Development Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

The first stage of development, Unconscious Incompetence, reflects the starting point where we are unaware of our lack of knowledge. In this stage, people are often busy but ignorant of what they don’t know. The time spent in this stage varies based on the motivation to learn. In team-based situations, collaboration is crucial to help individuals progress to higher levels of competence.

This stage can be challenging because recognizing one’s ignorance often leads to defensiveness. Both learners and leaders might deny the value of new skills or information. To move forward, individuals must acknowledge their incompetence and see the benefit in acquiring new skills. Acceptance and willingness to learn are essential for advancing to the next stage.

Moving from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence—from Stage 1 to Stage 2—requires being mentored (if you are the learner) or mentoring (if you are the teacher). Mentoring involves getting learners to understand that there is much they don’t know. Being successful here requires that you feel safe so that you want to explore. If you don’t feel safe, you won’t be motivated to step out of that ignorance.

Development Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

The second stage of development is called Conscious Incompetence. This is when you (or another person you are on a team with or are leading) become aware of what you don’t know. Although you don’t yet understand or know how to do something, you now recognize that there is a deficit in your knowledge or skills—and you appreciate the value of acquiring the new information or skill to mitigate that deficit.

This stage of the development process can create anxiety in many learners. Think about it: You might feel slightly unnerved to realize that there’s something valuable and potentially life- improving out there that you don’t really understand or know how to leverage. Unfortunately, that feeling makes some people hesitate to move from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence. They’d rather stay rooted in place than risk being uncomfortable or feeling inferior in some way. Often, this is seen among people who are perfectionists or who aren’t used to failing at anything.

 Moving from this step into the remaining two stages takes coaching. Coaching is distinct from mentoring. While mentoring is about enabling people to come to new realizations, coaching is about providing feedback on how people practice and execute what they’re learning. There needs to be a process for implementing new skills that allows for practice, feedback on the results and modification to the actions that result from such feedback. Without feedback, you (or the person you are coaching) will simply repeat the same moves over and over—or will give up entirely.

Development Stage 3: Conscious Competence

The third stage of development, Conscious Competence, is where you begin using a new skill with awareness and effort. At this level, learners understand how to perform tasks they previously could not, but still require significant time and concentration. The skill isn’t automatic yet, and practice is crucial for improvement.

However, practice involves making mistakes and learning from them, which can be frustrating. Many people, especially those who have already achieved some success, may mistakenly believe they should be able to perform new skills well immediately. This gap between knowing and doing can discourage learners, but persevering through practice is essential for skill mastery.

As a learner, your challenge is to remain in the practice cycle even when you become frustrated, so you can move on to the fourth stage of development—where the doing becomes second nature. You owe it to yourself to see the development through to the end (and you owe any team members this, too). As a leader or teacher who is guiding others, a key task is to keep learners practicing through the frustration so you can elevate them.

Development Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

The fourth stage of development, Unconscious Competence, is the pinnacle for lifelong learners and leaders aiming to elevate those around them. At this stage, individuals have practiced their skills so extensively that they perform tasks with maximum effectiveness and ease, without consciously thinking through each step. This mastery shifts the focus to managing performance and achieving results. For leaders, the role becomes monitoring progress and ensuring that learners maintain their high level of competence.

Reaching Unconscious Competence often sparks a curiosity about what else there is to learn. Recognizing that there is always more to discover, true lifelong learners continue seeking new knowledge and skills. This ongoing quest drives them to revisit the four stages of development in new areas of interest, continuously pushing their boundaries and maximizing their value

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to say you should be a lifelong learner, and becoming one can potentially be much easier when you have a step-by-step process that you can follow and repeat. Take a page from the playbook of highly successful people and strive to go from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence in all you do.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This article was published by the VFO Inner Circle, a global financial concierge group working with affluent individuals and families and is distributed with its permission. Copyright 2024 by AES Nation, LLC.

This report is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute a solicitation to purchase any security or advisory services. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. An investment in any security involves significant risks and any investment may lose value. Refer to all risk disclosures related to each security product carefully before investing. Konvergent Wealth Partners and Homer Smith are not affiliated with AES Nation, LLC. AES Nation, LLC is the creator and publisher of the VFO Inner Circle Flash Report. Investment advice offered through Integrated Partners, doing business as Konvergent Wealth Partners, a registered investment advisor.