The Importance of Incompetence

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Embracing Incompetence

I’ve taught piano lessons a few times as a side gig, and one thing that new students always seems to have in common is that they get frustrated with their “lack of progress.” This is especially true for adult students. It can be their first lesson – they have never touched a piano in their life – and they are cursing themselves for hitting a wrong note. From where I’m sitting, it is clearly absurd. Their brain is telling their fingers to do something they have never done before. Of course they won’t get it right the first time! Or the second time, or the tenth…

But in another way, it makes perfect sense. As adults, if we are able-bodied, we rarely encounter a new task, particularly a physical task, that we can’t perform. Most tasks fall into two categories: those we regularly perform with success, and those we avoid. I know that I’m not a skilled athlete, so I don’t seek out settings where my lack of skill would become evident. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most of us tend to structure our lives to avoid situations that make us feel incompetent.

Most tasks fall into two categories: those we regularly perform with success, and those we avoid.

The same principle applies to our social and emotional lives. If I’m socially awkward, I may actively avoid unstructured social settings. If the thought of speaking in front of a crowd causes me to sweat, I won’t seek out job opportunities that might require this of me. And this more or less “works” for us, if our goal is to minimize feeling incompetent. If, however, our goal is to grow as a human being, this is a terrible plan. Growth implies incompetence, and requires not only acknowledging this reality, but confronting it, and working through it. If we want to grow, then we must develop a tolerance for our “incompetence,” and even a friendliness toward it.

(As an aside, the “avoiding incompetence” plan not only inhibits our growth, but it actually, counter-intuitively, increases our anxiety. We feel like we’re minimizing anxiety because we’re avoiding situations that trigger it. But in reality, our minds magnify the thing we’re avoiding, so that even the thought of it begins to trigger anxiety. And meanwhile, our anxiety-tolerance muscles atrophy from lack of use, so the anxiety itself becomes cause for more anxiety, and down, down, down we spiral.)

If we want to grow, then we must develop a tolerance for our “incompetence,” and even a friendliness toward it.

Recognizing Shame

So if we want to grow, we must learn to embrace our incompetence as a natural part of the learning process. Easier said than done, of course, but learning to recognize how shame shows up in your body is a good place to start. Once you’ve gained that level of self-awareness, you can reassure yourself that you are not actually dying, you are just feeling shame.

Which symptoms do you experience?

It can also be helpful to explore the messages you received in your first formation about success and performance, and recognize how those continue to impact you. What is the track that plays in your mind? This too is shame, and naming it as such is essential if you are ever going to learn something new.

Which of these sound familiar?

Finally, there are certain predictable behaviors associated with shame. Identifying these will help you to diagnosis your shame when it shows up.

What behaviors do you exhibit when you’re feeling shame?

The Four Stages of Growth

In addition to embracing our incompetence, we must accept at the outset that the transformation journey is a long journey. Real, genuine change does not happen overnight. It does not happen in a 6-week online course. It does not happen in 6 months. You might start to see the beginnings of it in 6-8 months, but even then, the change will not become permanent unless it is practiced over the course of years.

There are several reasons that it takes so long to change. One, like piano lessons, is that we are working against physical and biochemical patterns that have been ingrained for decades. Unlearning processes that were previously subconscious is an immense task, and requires practicing being different physically, emotionally, and mentally over a long period of time. The second reason it takes so long is that our external circumstances are constantly changing, so while we might feel like we’ve made a lot of progress in one setting, we can find ourselves seemingly back at square one in another setting. An adage from the AA community speaks to this – “relapse is a part of recovery”. An almost universal example of this is the “emotional maturity” that we feel like we’ve gained with our friends in our 20’s and 30’s, only to find our child-self showing up to Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family. Why does this happen?? It’s not that the change we see with our friends isn’t real, it’s that it’s only partial. And until you practice being different with your family over time, the change will remain incomplete.

I want to present a simple framework for thinking about how change happens over time. Below is the “Competency Grid,” illustrating four phases to growth. The purpose of this tool is, first and foremost, to illustrate that transformation is a journey; it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Instead, it happens in four predictable stages.


Let me explain each quadrant, starting from the bottom left:

Unconscious Incompetence: This can be a place of ignorant bliss, where we are completely unaware of a weakness or shortcoming. (Although late in this stage we often start to feel a vague sense of dread, subconsciously aware that something is “off.”) This is the zone of blind spots and “what we don’t know we don’t know.” It is a mercy, really, that we can’t see everything that is lurking in this quadrant, because it would probably overwhelm us to the point of despair. Hence, why it is preferable for our foibles to be revealed gradually.

Conscious Incompetence: Shame is king in this quadrant. These are the places we most want to hide – definitely from others, and even from ourselves, if possible. When a blind spot is revealed, it is often deeply unsettling. What else can I not see? But, crucially, these are the places with the highest leverage for growth. The places where we are painfully, impossibly stuck are found here. So while we can tinker with the right side of the grid, real transformation must address this quadrant. A great tool for this quadrant is the Transformation Conversation, because sometimes all we can do is say “I’m stuck. I’m not where I want to be.” And that’s a start! Because vulnerably speaking out a place of brokenness is the first sign that we are ready (or moving toward “ready”) to work on it.

Conscious Competence: This quadrant is characterized by hard work, but also by the encouragement of finally seeing a little fruit. It takes a lot of conscious effort, but we are able to show up the way we want to, at least some of the time. Once we reach this quadrant, the success we see will usually provide enough momentum to propel us forward into the final phase. Transformation Conversations are a great tool for this quadrant as well, because they provide natural encouragement and accountability.

Unconscious Competence: This is the dream! When we’ve practiced something so many times that we start to do it without thinking about it, without meaning to. This is when doing finally becomes being. This is not superficial change that will come and go with our environment; rather, it represents a transformation of our core self, so we carry the change with us wherever we go.

The temptation, when we are confronted with something on the left side of the grid, is to get really busy working on things on the right side. The right side is safe, because it reinforces our sense of competence. But as I said, real transformation will not happen apart from leaning into our areas of incompetence.

Real transformation will not happen apart from leaning into our areas of incompetence.

Personal Examples

Playing guitar (unconscious competence) – In middle school, my older sister started teaching me a few chords on the guitar. At first it was tough on my fingers, but as I practiced over time, it got a little easier. I didn’t have to wrack my brain to remember the finger configuration for a G or a C or an Em. The transitions between chords were a little rough, but if I concentrated hard I could get it right. As the years went on and my practicing continued, my fingers calloused over and it didn’t hurt as badly. I can now play most chords with unconscious competence – my mind can wander or my eyes can be closed, but my fingers can produce the chords by muscle memory. I certainly don’t play at anything approaching a professional level, but I can do most of what I want to do without thinking about it.

Meal planning (conscious competence) – This is an area where I hung out in “conscious incompetence” for a long time. But instead of letting it lead to shame, I leaned into it. I had Transformation Conversations all the time: “I want to be the kind of person who cooks dinner at home at least 3-4 times a week. Right now I’m doing well to cook one meal a week.” I just spoke it out, again and again, and let myself be where I was. And then, at some point, something broke open for me, and I figured out that cooking wasn’t my problem – I genuinely enjoy cooking! Planning ahead was my problem. For some reason, my brain does not want to do the work of thinking through all the meals for the week and creating a grocery list. I do it now (conscious competence), but it is a painfully slow process. I have literally spent 3 hours at a time staring at cookbooks coming up with a plan. But you know what? At the end I have a plan! And I know that, in time, I’ll figure out what works for me and it will come more naturally.

Social confidence (conscious incompetence) – I’ve been working out of a new co-working space for a few months now, and have introduced myself to someone new a grand total of zero times. I watch people, I eavesdrop on their conversations, but I lack the social confidence to put myself out there and make a real connection. And this lack of social confidence (it might be more accurate to call it social anxiety) is not limited to my co-working space; it follows me to any setting where I’m around people I don’t know well. I’m aware that this is a weakness of mine, and I would like to grow into the kind of person who can not only meet new people with ease, but can also help others to feel at ease. (Did you catch that Transformation Conversation?) But at the moment, I don’t have the capacity to actively work on this. I’m focusing on other areas, and will get to this when the time is right. I will say, though, that I make a conscious effort to not avoid social settings out of anxiety, since I know that will exacerbate the problem. In fact, last week I chose to help facilitate a coaching workshop in part because I knew it would put me out of my comfort zone in this area.

Racial awakening (unconscious incompetence) – Since, by definition, I don’t know what is currently in this quadrant for me, I’ll share an example of something that was previously in this quadrant for far too long. For most of my life, I lived in complete and utter ignorance of the racial inequity faced by people of color in this country. The depth of my ignorance was so great that it’s hard to put words to. And while I said in the beginning that “unconscious incompetence” can be a place of “ignorant bliss,” I want to be clear that it is only blissful for the person who is oblivious. For everyone else, it can be devastatingly destructive and painful. For this issue in particular, the unconscious incompetence that the majority of white America maintains is extremely harmful to our black and brown neighbors. For me, it took several experiences over a period of a decade or so for anything to penetrate through my shroud of white ignorance. The first experience was as a freshman in college, where my professor assigned the book “Divided by Faith,” and I was first presented with the idea that black people have a different experience of police officers than white people. (If you are a black person reading this article, it may be absolutely unthinkable that I could have lived 18 years in this country without coming across this idea, and you are right to be horrified.) It was seven years later before I had a meaningful relationship with a black person, when Kalia moved in to Tyler House. This is when the race conversations began in earnest, and it’s unclear to me if there was suddenly much more video footage of police brutality being posted at that time, or if I was just finally in a place where I could see it for what it was. I imagine it was the latter, but whatever the case, I began to see that growth in this area needed to be a priority for me. Since then I have continued to educate myself in whatever ways I can, as well as investing in relationships with people of color. I still have a long way to go, but I am grateful for the friends who have patiently helped me along the way.

Reflection Questions

  1. What are three areas where you feel “consciously incompetent”? How are you responding to that feeling of incompetence? What would it look like to lean into those areas as opportunities for growth?
  2. What’s an area where you are experiencing “conscious competence”? What can you do to celebrate that growth? What support do you need to continue moving forward?
  3. What is one place you want to get into action on your journey of transformation?

[This is the third post in a series on “How Change Happens.” Click here for Part One: Change is Possible and Part Two: One Simple Tool to Jumpstart Your Transformation Journey. Or subscribe here to get new posts delivered to your inbox. You will only receive an email when new material is posted, never more than once a week, and you can unsubscribe at any time.]