Acting Fast. Learning Slow.

Wes Melton

In the quiet town of Cremona in Italy, there was a violin maker named Alessandro. A maestro in his own right, he had crafted instruments for over four decades, each one a testament to his expertise. One day, a young girl named Isabella approached him, eager to learn the art of crafting violins.

Isabella was curious, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Every time Alessandro demonstrated a technique, she’d inundate him with questions. “Why did you choose this particular wood?”, “What’s the significance of this curve?”, “How does the thickness here affect the sound?”

Initially, Alessandro was slightly irked. After all, these were methods he had employed for years, reaching a point where the 'how' was second nature to him. The 'why', however, had faded into the background of his unconscious competence.

But as days turned into weeks, something shifted. Alessandro found himself pondering Isabella's inquiries long after their sessions ended. Her fresh, untrained perspective prompted him to revisit aspects of his craft he had taken for granted. He began to explore and experiment, revitalizing his passion and deepening his understanding.

Over time he realized that he had actually stopped learning how to make violins. He had lost his own passion for learning about the process, the science, and the nuance and fell in to rote doing. While he was an expert at his craft, he realized that not only had decades past without him pushing to find new and interesting ways to maximize the excellence of his end product -- his own competence had graduated to stifling the interest and curiosity of the next generation.

Unconscious Competence

In the study of human expertise, there’s a concept that psychologists often refer to as the “Four Stages of Competence”. Beginning with unconscious incompetence, where an individual doesn't know how little they know, we progress to conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and finally reach unconscious competence.

Four Stages of Competence graphic

The last stage, where a task or skill becomes so habitual that it can be executed without any conscious thought, is often hailed as the pinnacle of mastery. But what if, lurking within this final stage, there’s a peril so silent and invisible that it blinds us to our own limitations and inhibits the growth of those around us?

Imagine for a moment you're a seasoned pilot with decades of experience under your belt. Every day, you step into the cockpit, go through your pre-flight check, take off, navigate, and land with the kind of proficiency only years of repetition can bring. This is unconscious competence in action. But one day, you're faced with a situation you've never encountered. Your automatic reactions could lead you astray. And worse, if a novice pilot is observing, he might mirror your misplaced confidence, resulting in dire consequences.

This scenario presents a fascinating paradox. On one hand, unconscious competence allows us to perform complex tasks without expending significant cognitive effort. But on the other, it can become a deceptive comfort zone, casting a shadow over our innate curiosity and drive for continuous learning.

Now imagine again, you're sitting in a board room as a seasoned executive. A junior member of the business development team suggests a strategy that you have watched fail again and again, so rather than entertain the conversation, you simply cut them short, "I understand where you're coming from, but that won't work." What if choosing the path of curiosity to devise whether they see a perspective or nuance you don't could result in outsized success that no one in your industry had ever achieved? Your own competence in your field could keep you from actually reaping new knowledge and new rewards if not tapered with curiosity.

Finally, consider the case of expert chess players. Research has shown that while these individuals can recall positions of pieces on a board with remarkable accuracy, this skill diminishes significantly when the pieces are arranged in a way that's not consistent with a real game. Their unconscious competence, honed from thousands of hours of play, is both their strength and their Achilles' heel.

But what’s even more intriguing is the ripple effect of a master’s unconscious competence on the novice. Think back to the pilot scenario. If the seasoned pilot brushes off an unexpected incident attributing it to mere "turbulence", a fledgling pilot may never learn the intricate dance of problem-solving in real-time. The result? Disaster.

We're (probably) not egomaniacs - it's in our DNA

The difficulty of truly being competent at something is that it didn't happen quickly. True, expert competence in a given field takes years and thousands of hours of learning, failure, experience, and repetition.

It is through repetition of action -- and not study -- that true skills, perspectives, and competence is earned and ingrained. It's easy to see then, how when for a long period of time we have repeatedly grown in success at a given task, how subconciously we can also be developing a resilliance to dissenting ideas or conflicting opinions.

To make things murkier, we rarely know if our experience is actually good experience. Maybe it was, but for a very different time, and as the world as moved forward, our experience has been silently eroding beneath our feet.

It's key to remember therefore: practice makes permanent, not perfect.

The Efficiency Machine: Our Brain on Autopilot

Unconscious competence, at its core, is a marvel of human neurobiology. While it's tempting to label the pitfalls of this stage as results of ego or pride, the true root lies deeper: within our brain’s craving for efficiency & safety. To understand this, we need to dive into the world of fast thinking, or what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to as "System 1" in action.

The brain consumes about 20% of our body's energy, yet weighs only about 2% of the average adult's weight. This disproportion in energy consumption makes our brain an avid lover of shortcuts. When we repetitively perform a task, our brain streamlines the process, minimizing the effort and energy required. This is how we transition from stumbling through a task to performing it seamlessly, almost robotically. It's like our mind creates a mental 'macro' for tasks we've mastered – one push of a button, and a series of actions are executed flawlessly.

System 1 vs. System 2

Kahneman elegantly breaks down human cognition into two systems: System 1 (fast, intuitive, automatic) and System 2 (slower, deliberate, analytical). As we hone our skills and gravitate toward unconscious competence, we're essentially moving tasks from the jurisdiction of System 2 to System 1.

System 1 is our default operating mode. It’s efficient, requiring less cognitive effort and energy. And while this is a boon when we need to make split-second decisions or perform familiar tasks without expending unnecessary mental energy, it's not without its pitfalls.

Our brain's desire for efficiency can, at times, lead us astray, however. In relying too heavily on System 1, we can become susceptible to cognitive biases and overconfidence. For instance, when faced with a unique problem that resembles a familiar one, System 1 might compel us to apply the same solution without critical evaluation, leading to errors in judgment.

Furthermore, as we become more adept at specific tasks and rely on our automatic processes, we might overlook nuances or new methods. The brain's love for patterns in an attempt to steer us away from danger can ironically sometimes mislead us, making us see patterns even when none exist, and leading towards danger.

Fortifying Ourselves with Awareness

Being forewarned is forearmed, the old adage goes.

Understanding the neuroscience behind unconscious competence can act as the first line of defense against its potential dangers. To combat our own competent biases, we should try to do some of the following as often as possible:

Intentional Slowness: It can be uncomfortable to sit in the midst of a perplexing decision or conversation, especially when we urgently want to move on. Those moments deserve patience and a disciplined slowness to create a habitual practice of discovery, dialogue, and learning.

Cultivate Mindfulness: Being mindful that we do not live in a static world and that our current context is not our previous context is a powerful perspective to attempt to live in at all times. Intentionally focusing on what might have changed or be actively changing can sometimes bring to light the automaticities we've developed.

Continuous Curiosity: By challenging ourselves with new situations or revisiting familiar scenarios with a fresh perspective, we can jolt our brain out of autopilot. Working to make our default response to stimulation high quality questions can help us better navigate new yet seemingly familiar territory.

Encourage Dissent: Most importantly, we should seek to foster an environment of dissent amongst our peers to ensure new or better perspectives aren't overlooked. Whether the top CEO or an individual contributor, we should all desire to cultivate a community that knows we are open to being challenged, and hold our own opinions loosely when presented with valid conflicting data.

In the end, our acquisition of experience, skills, and knowledge is a wonderful gift that truly does empower us to be more successful in future contexts. But if we aren't careful, our subconcious mind can blind us from better options, the insights brought in conflicting opinions, and stifle our own growth journeys.