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Beginning a new learning journey can be exciting. Beginnings are full of hope and possibilities. Starting something new can give us a glimpse of what could be if we stick with something long enough to see it through.
Becoming aware of the following five learning stages and knowing that what you’re going through is completely normal may help you push through the sticking points of the learning process and keep going, even when you might have otherwise given up hope and quit.
The first stage of learning is called unconscious incompetence. In this stage of learning, we don’t know what we don’t know.
For most people, whether you’re trying to learn a new language, play a new instrument, or learn complicated jiu-jitsu moves, this first stage of learning starts as fun and exciting. In the beginning, any flashes of success feel monumental.
This is the rude awakening you get when you realize all you don’t know. For many people, if they didn’t already quit in the blissful beginner stage, this second stage — or the suck — does them in.
The suck is where it slowly dawns on you just how much you don’t know. You start learning the rules of the game. You start trying to apply those rules, and as you do, get more in your head. You start to force things and can no longer get into flow. Even if you are making progress, you may feel like you’re going backwards because you’re now aware of all you’re doing wrong.
During the conscious competence learning stage, you know how to reach your goal but have to concentrate hard on your task. Nothing is automatic.
In this stage, your new learnings are still fragile and not yet cemented in your neural circuits — meaning you haven’t committed your new learning to your long-term memory. Because of this, you have to practice diligently and often or risk forgetting what you’ve learned.
Stage four of learning is when you fully internalize all that you’ve learned. You can execute your new skills automatically and without having to think beforehand. This is the stage of learning when you’re most likely to regularly get into the zone because you can stop thinking so much. Instead, you just let your body or mind take over and do what you already know how to do.
Whatever your new skill, this is when things feel less like a struggle and more flowy. Reaching this stage starts to feel fun and rewarding — like all your hard work has finally paid off.
The last stage of learning is when you can teach what you do unconsciously to others. It requires a deep understanding of what you’ve learned and an ability to communicate it to beginners.
Many people never get here, and the reality is that the younger you learned, the less likely you will be able to teach well. This is why high-level athletes that have been training since they were young are not always the best teachers. They have so deeply internalized all they’ve learned that they’re not always sure how to teach it to others.
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