The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert

by David · 3 comments

Aristotle said: we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

This is of course true and it’s the reason thousands of books are available on the subject.

I happen to have read many of these books and I’ve noticed a void. Often, authors assert that developing good habits or skill is nothing much more than making yourself do the things you want to do until they become automatic; and then they suggest how you can do so.

Although that advice is accurate, for me it’s more than a little simplistic.

When developing habits, or learning, we move through four distinct stages. I’ve found it helpful to know what these stages are because it means I’m able to identify where I am on my road to excellence and better judge how far I have left to go.

Also, if you’re like me – or any other human – then there are certainly times when you temporarily stop you’re attempt to develop a habit, or skill, because life gets in the way.

When this happens what do you do? Do you start right from the beginning or where you left off? By understanding the four stages of learning you’ll not only be able to answer these questions, you’ll also know what to do.

I’ll be walking through the different stages with constant reference to a skill most of us have learnt; riding a bike.

Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence

Developing skill starts with us not knowing what to do, or what’s to come; we’re unconsciously incompetent, ignorant of what lies ahead.

As it goes, the beginning of a journey is usually easy, and it’s the same for learning.

Moving from stage one into stage two only requires that you read a book on the subject, talk to someone with experience, or watch someone do what you want to learn.

In the case of learning to ride bike it’s incredibly simple. Usually someone shows and tells us what we need to do.

I probably don’t need to say that riding a bike is all about balance. To ride a bike you need to be going fast enough, keep the wheel straight and distribute weight evenly.

Depending on what you’re trying to learn, moving from stage one can take a matter of minutes, or a few short hours1.

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence

By only consuming information and watching others perform you’ll come to  know what you don’t know, in other words, you will quickly become somewhat enlightened. Moving into this stage of learning is an easy win, nevertheless it’s progress.

This is where the real work begins. To move from stage two onto stage three, what you’ll need to do is practice, practice practice. That’s not ground breaking news, but I’m often surprised by how many people I know that get themselves stuck at stage two, and show no signs of making progress.

We all know a person that reads or watches a lot of videos about a subject, but doesn’t make much progress. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience? I know I’ve been guilty of this.

This behaviour is common and there are lots of people who make a lot of money as a result. For example, personal development ‘gurus’ and how to make money ‘experts’.

No matter how much you read or watch videos, making progress will always come down to three things: action, action action.

Can you imagine learning to ride a bike by only watching someone ride?

Stage Three: Conscious competence

This is where things become more interesting. You’re now able to perform the skill you want; you’re able to communicate in the foreign language, able to play the songs you want to on the piano, or you’re finally able to ride the bike.

This can be incredibly satisfying, and this is where many setting out to learn a skill stop.

Being consciously competent at something means you’re able to perform the act, but you still need to think about what you’re doing.

When I was learning to ride a bike I remember when I  was finally able to ride for a few minutes without stopping. I had to concentrate extremely hard. I would think about keeping the wheel straight, not leaning to much to one side, and making sure that I didn’t go too slow, all at that same time. I could ride the bike, but I was for from an expert.

The key question is this: how do you move from this stage to the final stage of learning?

That’s another easy answer: repetition, repetition, repetition.

Most people slow down or stop trying once they’ve reached a certain level of skill, that’s fine if you only want to be ok at something, but if you want to become an ‘expert’ as they say, then it’s important to keep going over things, again, and again, and again.

Most of us continued to ride our bikes even though it required great concentration, and then something magical happened, one day suddenly we were riding our bikes without having to think at all.

This is when you move into the last stage of learning.

Stage Four (complete mastery!): Unconscious Competence

Reaching this stage is true mastery. You can speak a language, play songs on the piano, or ride a bike without giving it a second thought.

Experts make what they do seem easy, and at the time of performing it is. But don’t forget, countless hours have been put in to get them to where they are (10,000 hours?).

Even at this stage, it’s important to keep using the skill. If you manage to reach this stage then you’ll probably never for get it, but if you do leave it long enough you’ll move back to stage three for sure.

When I went to Spain last summer I spoke Spanish for 90% of my time there. When I returned to London and started speaking English again – the language I’ve been speaking for most of my life – it took some time to adjust2. At first It felt weird to have English sounds come out of my mouth. This goes to show that to a certain degree, even something I’ve been doing for most of my life can be unlearned.

So, there we have it, the four stages of learning: the path to becoming an expert.

I want to stress that whatever skill you’re trying to develop, whether it’s learn a language, learn an instrument, or maybe become a better writer, you’ll have to hone a number of different skills. And it’s often the case that the required skills, to say, become a better writer, are all at different stages of development.

That’s why It’s important to constantly evaluate where you are with these skills so you can assess what will be the most effective use of your time. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Thanks for reading!

  1. This can also sometimes take weeks, months or possibly years. For example, if you want to become a doctor, there are going to be a ton of things you’ll need to become aware of, and a few short hours just won’t do the trick.
  2. I’m talking minutes here. The point I’m trying to make is that a few short weeks was enough for English to feel weird to me. I can only imagine what would happen if I didn’t read,hear or speak any English for a year or two.

Here’s a video of me going over everything discussed in this article:

If you liked this video,  why not subscribe to my YouTube channel


Photo credit

  • Hey David, good article. I agree with the first two stages, but I also have my own opinions about the last two. I don’t think that repetition by itself is the way to become a master. Sure, it’s the way to get so competent as something that it becomes second nature, but do we really want to stay at that level?

    Take my typing skills for example. I consider myself a fairly fast typist, but I’m not sure I can become a “master” if I’m not conscious about what I’m doing. I’m going to stay at the same speed unless I stay in the third stage and consciously try to become faster through practicing something a little faster than what I can already do.

    So the question is, can we ever reach that master stage? Should we always stay in the third stage to stay conscious and strive to become better? Once we reach that fourth level we stagnate, and that’s something we want to avoid.I would love to hear your opinions on this.

    • Hi Derick, thanks for you’re thoughtful question! 

      I think most people would agree that you have to be conscious in order to improve, and that’s exactly what I asserted in this article. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, but if you look closely at all of the stages described, you’ll see that in order to progress through to the next stage, it’s necessary to work.

      I wouldn’t ever suggest it’s in anyone’s interest to stop working. As you know, my life philosophy is primarily about constantly exploring and learning. And not working at improvement would go against everything I stand for. 

      This article was about getting to the point where you can say that you’ve mastered a skill. Of course, as you’ve rightly pointed out, you’ll still need to work if you want to continue to get better. There’s always room for improvement!

      Also, perhaps you missed it, but in the last lines of the article I wrote: 

      ‘It’s important to constantly evaluate where you are with these skills so you can assess what will be the most effective use of your time. But that’s a conversation for another day.’

       What I was trying to say here is that the work doesn’t stop here. You’ll need to keep pushing forward. 

      Thanks for your question! If they came to you then I’m sure they came to other readers, too. 

      I hope I’ve answered all of your concerns? 

       – David

  • Hi David,
    A great post. I would like to make comment at this stage on the first stage. One issue, which you raise, is that you can be exposed to what you area not aware of but you still remain unaware of even after being exposed to it. One example of that is people learning a language when they can hear or read the “standard” but their production remains at variance with it.
    So there is something else that is required for a person to become conscious of what before s/he was not conscious of. Desire to improve, from the heart – not the head, is one one key to that. That I believe is one key factor what separates the successful people from the rest.

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