Every time I realise I need to learn something new I think about a quote by Donald Rumsfeld

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; there are things we know we know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
– Donald Rumsfeld, 2002 United States Secretary of Defense

If you’re struggling with a new skill, trade, or establishing yourself in business – keep this quote on hand to remind you that it’s normal to experience self-doubt, that those thoughts are often valid, and that it’s okay to ask for help.

This sort of crazy sounding quote brings to mind a modality of learning called the “4 Steps of Competency”. It is one of the reasons that I don’t think being self-taught in business or a profession is necessarily the best option. Have you ever tried to do something yourself & made a mess of it, then been shown how to do it and thought ‘Wow, that made my life a million times easier!’ or ‘If only I had known that sooner!’ – I’m betting that you have. That is competency!

A common stumbling block for many new business owners and freelancers when it comes to asking for help is embarrassment at their ‘ignorance’. Even if they have never owned a business before or freelanced a day in their life, they feel as if they SHOULD know everything. Or they don’t know where to go to find correct information … so they go to google, the internet God of all knowledge. Now don’t get me wrong! I love google, but just because it’s on google doesn’t mean it is right or the best info. It’s easy to waste a lot of time (time = money) wading through a bunch of nonsense! I hold the, sometimes unpopular opinion, that we should all own our incompetence – hear me out, I don’t mean that in a bad way!

*NLP has 4 Steps of Competency to mastery that are universal to everyone learning a new skill. There is no pre-determined length of time we need to stay on each step, so those who choose not to seek help to fully understand new endeavors often remain on the lower steps for long periods of time. While of course there is no wrong way to pursue learning or too slow a speed to acquire a new skill – there are certainly inefficient ways.

Personally I will always choose to take the quickest, easiest route to learn what ever I need to to grow my business.

NLP's 4 steps to competence

STEP 1: Unconscious Incompetence

The first step of this model is Unconscious Incompetence. In this step you don’t know that you don’t know how to do something. This can look like a lot of things. You might be skilled administer who wants to work from home but has never heard of a *VA. You might even be working toward on-line marketing but you’ve never heard the term “click funnel” because you’ve only ever produced physical products before. Whatever your missing skill or knowledge gap (“incompetence”) looks like, & there is sure to be some missing little bit of knowledge, own that there are things you don’t know and ask questions. That’s the only way you will get better, learn more, and move on.

STEP 2: Conscious Incompetence

Conscious incompetence is the second step. It is when you discover a gap in your knowledge bank and you know that you need to learn about something in order to move forward. This is where the “conscious” part comes in. This might be that new mother who learned there is such a thing as a VA. It might be a budding Social Media Manager who is brilliant at managing thier clients profiles, but is clueless when it comes to keeping their financials in order to function as a business rather than an employee. It may be web designer who has found they need to learn a new code to advance their skills. Whatever it looks like, recognising where your lapses in knowledge are will allow you to move onto the next step.

STEP 3: Conscious Competence

Conscious competence – this is the midway point. You have learned the new skill or task or have the knowledge you need, but the doing still takes concentration. You can get it done or recall the information, but it requires too much attention for you to do anything else while completing the task or remembering the information you need. Remember when you first got your driving licence? You had been deemed to know how to drive but you still had to be really focused when you were behind the wheel. This step is where fear of the unknown gradually transforms into confidence, and the last stage of this cycle. You probably have a to do list with all of your next steps on it at this stage, and you know you can do the steps which will build your business or hone your craft, it’s just a matter of trying to do them and recalling what they are!

STEP 4: Unconscious Competence

Unconscious competence – this is the point where you say “I can do this” and you know it’s true because you are doing it. What’s more, you’re doing it effortlessly. Without a second thought, you are completing the thing that just a few days, weeks, or months ago wasn’t even on your radar. What a journey! You drive without thinking, you navigate your favorite software standing on your head (okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration). The “unconscious” part of this stage is that you no longer even to think about the process, you just do it!.


Mastery is essentially unconscious competence but at expert level. It is the final step. Mastery is the thing we all strive for when learning new things. These things might be part of your craft or occupation, part of your business, or a completely unrelated hobby or skill. Some theories have it that you must practice a disipline for 10,000 hours in order to truly master it! I think this figure is debatable depending on the task – think how long it takes to learn to bake a perfectly light cake as opposed to becoming a master pilot!

What cannot be denied is that you cannot reach mastery without first recognising your incompetence!

So think about it. What are you incompetent at? What gaps are there in your knowledge bank? Who might be able to help you bridge the gap between what you’re oblivious to, and the skills or things you’d need to master to succeed?

If you’re a new entrepreneur or starting a new business, you’ll often be totally unaware where your knowledge gaps are. That’s where the guidance of a specialist comes into play. In fact it’s why Enterprise by Design came to be – I’ve seen many people try to figure out how to design their own logo & totally botched it or had an amateur do it for them to the detriment of their reputation, bank account or business. I want to enable you to learn what you need to learn, when you need to learn it. And learnhow to do it efficiently & correctly.

In the meantime, download this free **NLP’s 4 steps to competency** printable poster (.pdf 166kb) to remind you that incompetence is a valid part of your journey toward becoming a master, and that learning with the guidance of an expert is essential to your business success.

NLP: Neuro Linguistic Programming
** VA: Virtual Assistant

My little side note: I absolutely adore Creative Live’s ♥ Free Live Online Classes … as long as you watch them live they are free. If you want to watch again or review them you must pay for them.