A reminder of how we learn, whether driving a car or forming a new habit


A car stick shift or gear stick

For the past eight weeks, I have found myself, several times a week, sitting in the passenger seat of a small, manual (stick shift) car. I try to remain calm while saying things like "watch out for that idiot in the van" or "take the second exit from the mini-roundabout", or the most common "did you check your mirrors before breaking?"


Initially, my anxiety levels were noticeable as my hand firmly gripped the handbrake (like that would achieve anything).


But gradually I have come to relax and enjoy the time on the roads of South West London.


So what have I been doing?


I have been assisting my eldest child in learning to drive a car. Most, if not all of you, will remember the right of passage that comes with spending many hours in the (literal) driving seat for the first time - the goal of passing "the test" and attaining the long-desired freedom that comes from not having to rely on the taxi service that parents provide.


Through observing my daughter learn and develop the capability to drive a car responsibly, I am reminded of how we learn new skills and behaviours. From the kangaroo juice beginning, which is common with learner drivers trying to cope with manual transmissions - short juddering spurts that lead to one rubbing the back of the neck and hoping to hell that I didn't just get whiplash - to the now smooth left foot on the clutch, right foot off the accelerator, move the gear stick to third gear, right foot back on the accelerator as the clutch is released action. It is remarkable how quickly we can learn something new if we apply ourselves.


There is a simple but powerful four-stage model that helps you to understand how we learn new skills:

The Four Stages of Competence - Noel Burch, Gordon Training International

Stage 1: We are unconsciously incompetent (UI).

In the learner driver case, what the hell is a clutch, and what does it do?


Stage 2: Consciously incompetent (CI).

What do you mean I have to look in my mirrors while making my feet do different things and move a stick with my left hand, all without taking my eyes off the road? How is that even possible?


Stage 3: Conscious competence (CC).

This isn't too bad. Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre. Clutch, Accelerator, Gear, Accelerator, Clutch. Could you repeat after me?


Stage 4: Unconscious competence (UC).

Which only comes from applying the nascent skills repeatedly and under different circumstances. We don't even have to think about the different pedals we use to complete our journeys. Instead, we listen to music and talk to our passengers, often without the need to consciously be aware of the skills we are using to transport ourselves from A to B safely.


The Four Stages of Competence framework for how we learn - Noel Burch

This model can frame people's skill development to be successful at the next, more senior stage in their career. The first step is to clearly perceive the relevant facts and information to identify the skills they need to develop for continued success. Coaching will help provide this insight and raise people's awareness, enabling them to transition from stage 1 to stage 2.

The focus of the coaching then switches to helping those at stage 2 of the framework develop the skills, behaviours or new habits. The new skills could be enhanced communication, empowering their teams, robust decision making, giving and receiving feedback, forming high-performing teams, etc. Moving onto stage 3 requires motivation, real-world practice, and identifying opportunities to apply the developing skills and hold oneself accountable.

When discussing forming new behaviours and habits, I like to picture a muddy bike trail with many dried tyre tracks, some much deeper than others. When we create new habits and behaviours, we are getting over the side of a deep groove and starting a new tyre trail in the mud. Initially, it is a shallow line in the muddy path because the habit is new. The new track will become more permanent and deeper with time, hence easier to follow without too much thought. But watch out. The old habit remains, which is a deep tyre track. In fact, you may revert to the old habit during times of stress.


Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

Coaching will help learn new skills, behaviours, and habits, but this often requires to be done over a sustained period. Otherwise, we won't change behaviours and form new habits that endure. Instead, we will likely have executed tasks consciously and capably - stage 3 in the model. Stage 4 and unconscious competence is when you know you are on the path to mastery.


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