There are four stages to learning.

  1. Unconscious incompetence.
  2. Conscious incompetence.
  3. Conscious competence. 
  4. Unconscious competence. 

It’s generalizing, but it works on a practical level.

Unconscious Incompetence

Before you ever try to do something, maybe even before you know what the thing is, you suck at it.

You just don’t know it yet. 

This stage of learning is unconsciously incompetent and when you are here, you lack the basic vocabulary to even begin to assess your skill level. You may assume capabilities that you do not have, or you may not recognize that capabilities are required for the task you’re trying to accomplish. 

Some people never get past this stage.

Hold my beer, they tell you and then go on to fail horribly.

Each time, they believe that they are capable of doing something that they are not. They may not even realize they failed when they failed. In fact, they might have thought they did really well.

Ever had an argument against someone who contradicted themselves, and thought they won the argument at the same time? Well, there it is

Those, such as our kitten above, who encounter failure and recognize it do so with this realization:

Whoa, this is harder than it looks. 

Have you ever had that feeling? If you did, then at that moment you graduated to the next stage of learning.

Conscious Incompetence

You actually accomplished something. You realized, wow, I suck at this. Until you achieve this thought you cannot learn. Unfortunately, a lot of people stop here. The reality of their falure discourages them from continuing.

Rather, this should be a cause for celebration because you’ve demonstrated you’re capable and ready for study and progress.

Until you realize the true Way, whether in Buddhism or in worldly laws, you may think that your own way is the one correct and in order.

However, if we look at things objectively […] we see various doctrines departing from the true Way.

What you believe in often proves to be contrary to the true way, distorted as it is by tendencies to favor your own thoughts and views.

Know this well, and try to act with forthrightness as the foundation and keep the true Heart as the Way. Enact strategy broadly, correctly and openly.

— Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings

You will alays have your own bias, your own beliefs, you may not even prepared to recognize that there is a truth that you cannot yet see.

So in this stage of learning you need to celebrate because the admission of I suck at this is understanding that there is indeed a path out of here, and you have put the first footstep down on that path. 

The teacup needs first to be empty of what it held before, in order to receive the freshly brewed tea.

With practice, dedication, an open mind, asking questions, attempting statements, and being prepared to fail, you will eventually graduate to the next level.

Conscious Competence

Having first tried to hit a driver, shoot a three pointer, bunt, calculate triple integrals, or stay standing on one foot with your eyes closed (try it) and getting through the I suck at this phase through dedication and practice, you have arrived.

You can do it!

You walk up and address the ball. You place your feet just a bit more than shoulder width apart. You open your stance ever so slightly in the front. While maintaining a smooth and even backswing, you make sure that your front arm remains straight and you break at the wrist, ever so slightly pause at the top before twisting and leading with your hips you gracefully shift your weight from back foot to front, keeping your eye on the ball, uncoiling your swing and making contact DINNNNNGGGGG … you follow through and remain controlled and steady and watch the arc of the ball’s flight…  275 yards down the fairway right in the center.

You figured out you sucked. You worked your ass off. You got good. You know this thing you do is not easy and your work paid off in some success.

Almost everyone who works hard at something while slogging through it will end up here.

From suffering to success.

You are rewarded.

If you stay with things, and never, ever stop trying to get better, you will forget all of the above component based expertise that keep you in there, like a manager, preventing various subsystems from rebelling and extracting a good result from their desire to go rogue on you.

If so, you will graduate again.

Unconscious Competence

Aaron Rogers walks up, assess the field, calls the play, wide receiver is open, turns, ball is already in his hands by the time he finishes turning around. 


He beats my team all the time and I hate his dirty, dirty guts, but I recognize someone who has achieved unconscious competence.

This is not free comptence.

He is a god.

This is earned, and earned to the point that every fiber in your body is geared and preped and knows what to do so your consciousness can relax and get out of the way and with all of your internal elements, body and mind, primed to deliver, they do.

There is no magic here. Musashi tells you how to do it:

You will not reach the Way of strategy by merely reading this book. Absorb the things written in this book. Do not just read, memorize or imitate, but make sure that you realize the principle from within your own heart. Study hard to absorb these things into your body.

— Miyamoto Musashi, Book of Five Rings

He is telling you that you can consciously learn this stuff. He refers to reading, memorization, imitation but you need to know from inside your own heart. He’s saying you can’t do the brain thing, of leading around and captaining your systems but you need to learn so deep that it is automatic and internal. Study hard to absorb these things into your body, is the trick used by Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Christiano Ronaldo, in order to do what they do on the field of play. 

He prepares for these things and he beats them with his brain. All of those components of his plan have been practiced to being internalized. And he dismantles people with what he does here.

Musashi often says, “One must train.”

So there you have it.

You can see it in a baseball pitcher that has that perfect game. You ask them what they were experiencing? 

I was in the zone.

There is another word for this, it’s called flow and it refers to a state where you’ve hit a level of expertise that everything is just naturally processing for you without conscious interference. 

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

— Wikipedia

When you are in the zone, simple things become easy. The ball goes where you want it to go, you’re not thinking about it, you just will it and the right things happen.

I came, I saw, I conquered.

(By the way, that’s Drew Sheppard’s brilliant creation at his blog.)

For an author experiencing flow, the words write themselves as you can hear your characters talking and you’ve almost become a machine taking dication. 

Programmers sit down and code comes out of their hands as fast as they can type and it is elegant and clever and works on the first compile.

Musicians pick up their instrument and jam.

Rappers freestyle. 

Tanobe sensei picks up your sword and says it is gimei.

These moments come to those who are lucky, if they have worked hard and progressed to the level where they are no longer thinking about the components or having to manage with their conscious mind the assembling of these components into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Everything is internalized for the level 4 expert, and they can exist in the moment and perform. 

Not everyone can stay here, that pitcher who pitched the perfect game might be out of the league in two seasons. You might bowl 300 once in your life if you’re lucky, but when it happened, you felt it, you were in the zone and you couldn’t have gotten there without a lot of hard work and internalizing your lessons.

Tanobe sensei when he is going to tell me that a signature is no good, an answer is coming to his mind first based on all of the information and study in the neural net inside his skull.

When you have hit this level of expertise, you are often doing before you think you have even made the decision to do.

You just do.

Luke fails because he doesn’t grasp that Yoda is asking him to leave his preconceptions behind. Luke believes something and this belief is a barrier to his progression.

Yoda’s encouragement is not to try. It’s not to try harder. It’s not to work.

It’s to become the empty teacup, and to throw away what he thinks he knows. Without doing that first, he can’t proceed. Luke is stuck at Consciously Incompetent in this scene. He knows he has talent, but he hasn’t entirely abandoned his mindset from when he was Unconsciously Incompetent.

In spite of invoking the force himself, in spite of seeing evidence of its reality, he hasn’t completely let go of his preconceptions and what he thought he knew to be true.

Yoda doesn’t ask him any more than this. Empty yourself of your preconceptions and do it. Anything less than just doing it, means that the preconceptions are still lurking there as a barrier.

Luke fails. Luke falls back on his preconceptions. You want the impossible. Luke is refusing to empty what he thought to be true from his mind. He can’t proceed.

Yoda then simply shows him. Luke is still not enlightened until Yoda says his lack of belief that it can be done is the reason for his failure. This lack of belief that it can be done, is because of his reliance on his preconceptions to guide him rather than opening himself, becoming the empty vessel, so he can accept higher learning.

So where does that bring us

It is very easy to get stuck at any point on this path. Even with hard work, the third stage may be the highest point you can achieve. If so, that’s OK. 

In order to get on the path though, you first need to be told that there is a path. Without any feedback, you can be that kitten jumping and falling. 

At every stage you need to be ready to be challenged, to have information rewritten. Sometimes you will reject what you are told and often times you should. 95% of all statistics are made up after all. 

But the point is to always be asking yourself, Am I missing something here?

It took me a long time to understand what made a sword healthy. I like a lot of westerners thought that original condition, and lack of flaws, meant a blade was healthy and that’s not how it’s handled when examining high level blades.

High level blades are heathy if the hamon is bright and are tired if the hamon is dim. Kitae ware and other condition issues don’t matter. The ability of the sword to cut well and not break are based on the balance of hard steel in the yakiba and resilient steel in the core and ji. As a sword gets polished down, the hamon is slowly stripped away atom by atom. As it is stripped away and we get deeper into the sword there is less martensite. The boundary between the hardened edge steel and the rest of the blade begins to get murky as we get deeper down into the sword, and the result is a dim hamon. 

If you think about it, the fast cooling of a blade when it is quenched is what leads to the appearance of the hamon, but the internal parts of the blade retain heat a little bit longer than the surface which is exposed directly to water. The result is somewhat softer steel the deeper you go into the blade.

The resulting sword when polished down too much won’t hold the same edge as it did when it was healthy. It no longer performs so well.

This is why the blade is tired, not because of patches of unhappy looking steel in the ji. The exposure of the core in the ji though is something that is going to move somewhat along the same path as the hamon appearing dim. So you may get both in a tired blade, but if the hamon is bright, you are good to go.

Getting there for me involved many frustrating moments at the sword museum looking at new Juyo and new Tokuju blades. When I would see these blades with patchy jihada I couldn’t understand, how could that pass to this level?

This is my Luke moment. I was stuck on a preconception, that health was displayed in the look of the jihada.

My epiphany was in asking Tanobe sensei about a particular blade I saw on display. I told him, did you see this one? How did it pass? It’s tired. 

No, he said, it’s healthy.

I left that conversation and just meditated on it until I understood what he was getting at. The hamon on all these blades in the museum is always bright and beautiful. The older blades are given a pass for inconsistencies in the jihada, though a fully intact and beautiful jihada is a bonus. 

With Japanese swords, form follows function. The sword is beautiful because it is extremely well engineered and designed and it is crafted to suit its purpose as well as is possible. The beauty of a sword is like looking at the eyes of a falcon, or seeing a cheetah run, it is that perfection of a predator taking on its ideal shape. 

That shape is made only to suit its purpose. Therein we find beauty. When the blade tires, and the hamon dims, it starts to lose its beauty but this is important only because the blade is beginning to lose its ability to fulfill its purpose.

I had to abandon what I thought I knew in order to understand that. 

You will always be hit in the face with information that requests you to contradict something you think you know. This creates a feeling of discomfort called cognitive dissonance. The reason people fail to proceed out of the first stage is often because they deal with cognitive dissonance by dismissing the new information which contradicts that which they believe to be true.

Luke, when told of what is possible, says no, you want the impossible. The contrary information is discarded in order to stay safe and sound within his existing belief system.

Inside that belief system, he is as good as he can ever be. 

And this is the real barrier to learning. At every level you need to reevaluate, be prepared to empty your mind and accept I suck at this in order to elevate to the next level. 

Even when being given incorrect information, there is something in there that you can probably scrape away and learn from. 

Importantly, face yourself with challenging information and be prepared to listen to what you don’t believe so that you never get yourself stuck in a position of unconscious incompetence. 

When the judges hand back a decision that you don’t like, those stuck in unconscious incompetence say, the judges suck. This is a major barrier in preventing them from moving forward. In all likelihood those judges know more than you. You may disagree with them and formulating good arguments why can in fact help you learn. But summary dismissal because the information is contrary to what you want to hear, gets you stuck in a loop where you will never escape and learn something.

If you do become the teacup, if you do accept that Yoda might know something that you don’t know, then you will be ready to receive some knowledge. When you yourself have hit the third or fourth level of learning, that is the time to revisit the judgment and pick it apart. 

You will at times need to hold seemingly contradictory pieces of information in your mind until you rise to a level of understanding that allows you to judge between them and understand at the core what they mean. To an observer with no training, the first and fourth level learners appear equally confident in their abilities. Yet one knows nothing, and the other knows everything. 

The solution in that is to not be quick to judge, this is giving in to your preconceptions and leveraging a conclusion off of a base that doesn’t exist. 

Instead, be the teacup.

If you do that the confusion will eventually resolve itself.