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Hocus Focus: The Four Stages of Competence
How being conscious of our failings and shortcomings can help us improve our magic.
Welcome to Hocus Focus! In my previous post, I discussed the concept of deliberate practice, which is crucial for learning or improving any skill, especially those in the realm of sleight-of-hand magic. As I continue to delve deeper into the deceptive arts, I've been reminded of a popular psychological model of learning that I believe could be immensely helpful to magicians, especially beginners. The four stages of competence, used extensively by management consultants and coaches, is a widely recognised model that outlines the process of acquiring a new skill. In this article, we will explore how this model applies specifically to learning magic.
The four stages of competence, also known as the conscious competence ladder, proposes that individuals go through four distinct stages when acquiring a new skill.1 The model is applicable to all skills, regardless of their perceived difficulty. From something as simple as tying your shoelaces to complex tasks, such as performing brain surgery, we always go through these four stages. It's important to note that we're always at one of these stages, even if we're not always consciously aware of it. This makes understanding the four stages a powerful tool for personal growth and development.
This four-stage model of competence is an incredibly useful concept because it enables individuals to be self-aware of their skill level and identify the exact steps they need to take to improve. By understanding which stage you are on, you gain insight into the areas that require further development and can focus your efforts on practising specific aspects of the skill. This level of self-awareness and direction is crucial for making significant progress and achieving mastery in any skill, including the art of magic.
Stage 1: Unconcious Incompetence
The first stage, called unconscious incompetence, occurs when we are beginners and unaware of how little we actually know. At this stage, we may not even recognise that our Elmsley Count is stiff and unnatural or that we're being heavy-handed when performing a double lift. We may have a grasp of the basic mechanics of a move, but we are yet to understand why it works. This lack of awareness characterises stage one of the model.
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In addition to not recognising our own shortcomings, the first stage of the "conscious competence" model can also involve not knowing how to perform a particular magic trick or sleight-of-hand technique. In fact, prior to learning the secret of a trick, we are all in a state of unconscious incompetence, regardless of our general level of experience. This is because it is impossible to be aware of what we do not know. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know!”
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
The second stage is known as conscious incompetence. We begin to acquire the skill more deliberately and with greater focus. As we practice and apply the skill consciously, we become better at it, but we also become more aware of our mistakes and shortcomings. This can be especially true for performers who record their practice sessions or rehearsals, as I mentioned in my previous article. Sometimes, it can be a humbling or even painful experience to watch how poorly we performed initially. At this stage, we begin to recognise specific errors, such as a sloppy Elmsley Count or a flawed double lift technique, but we may not yet understand how to correct them effectively. In other words, we become consciously aware of our own deficiencies and are thus consciously incompetent. Sure, our double lift still sucks, but at least we know that it sucks!
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
Moving on to the third stage, conscious competence, all that hard work and practice begins to pay off. You are able to perform the skill with greater ease and precision, either by executing it slowly and deliberately or by breaking it down into smaller steps. However, there is still heavy conscious involvement required when performing the skill. For example, you may be able to execute an Elmsley Count or double lift successfully, but you might still appear tense or strained while doing so. Nonetheless, you are able to perform the skill with a greater degree of accuracy and consistency. This stage is characterised by an increased level of improvement in the skill.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
In the final stage of the learning process, you have practised the trick or sleight to the point where the movements have become second nature or automatic. Your Elmsley Count is now silky smooth, and your double lift is imperceptible. You no longer need to consciously think about the mechanics of the move when you execute it; it simply flows naturally from your muscle memory. This is known as unconscious competence. At this stage, you have become so fluent in the new skill that you are not only able to perform it flawlessly, but you are also able to teach it to another person with confidence and expertise.
The relevance of the four stages of competence to magicians is significant, as magic requires the constant acquisition of new skills. For instance, if you come across a trick that involves a palm and a pass, but you don't know how to execute these two moves, you must learn them in order to perform the trick (or substitute the moves and potentially weaken the effect).
Moreover, the model provides a useful guideline for knowing when we are ready to perform a new trick in front of a live audience. If we have not yet reached the fourth stage of unconscious competence, then we are not truly ready to perform. It would be unwise to attempt the trick at stage two or three, as we are likely to make mistakes or deliver a subpar performance, which could ultimately lead to embarrassment. Therefore, the four stages of competence serve as a valuable tool for magicians to determine their readiness to perform and ensure they deliver an excellent performance every time.
The process of learning a new magic trick or sleight can be broken down into four stages of competency:
Unconscious Incompetence - This is the first stage, where we are unaware of how little we know. We don't even know what we don't know.
Conscious Incompetence - In this stage, we become aware of our own failings and recognise that we need to improve. We may not know what we are doing wrong, but we are consciously aware of our incompetence.
Conscious Competence - At this stage, we have practised the skill enough that we can perform it, but we still need to concentrate and be aware of the steps involved.
Unconscious Competence - The final stage is when the skill has become second nature, and we can perform it without conscious effort or thought. At this stage, we can even teach the skill to others.
The four-stage model can also be viewed in terms of intuition and analysis. In the first stage, unconscious incompetence, your intuition about the skill is flawed. As you progress to conscious incompetence, your intuition is better, but you lack the analytical framework to improve. In the conscious competence stage, you possess the necessary information, knowledge, and understanding to master the skill. Finally, in the unconscious competence stage, you have developed the right kind of intuition to achieve full mastery of the skill. Understanding this dual perspective helps us appreciate the value of each stage in the overall process of skill acquisition.
By understanding and applying the four stages of competence, magicians can effectively evaluate their skills and determine when they are ready to perform a new trick in front of an audience. With dedicated practice and a deep understanding of these stages, anyone can make significant improvements and become a highly skilled performer. However, it's important to note that practice is key, and without consistent effort and dedication, progress may be slow or non-existent. So, if you're serious about mastering the art of magic, keep practising and remember that each stage of competence is an essential part of the journey towards mastery.
P.S. If you want to leverage the power of the four stages of competence in your magic practice, I highly recommend creating a Trello board to track your progress with various tricks and sleights. I've been using this method for a while, and it has proven to be an effective way to stay focused and motivated. To help you get started, I've created a Demo Magic Practice Board that you can check out.
Trello is an excellent productivity tool that you can use for free to improve your skills as a magician. In my future posts, I will share more tips and strategies on how to use this tool effectively.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like my previous one on deliberate practice:
Noel Burch, an employee at Gordon Training International, developed the four stages of competence in the 1970s. He called it the "four stages for learning any new skill". Noel based his model on the ideas of management trainer Martin M. Broadwell, who described the model as "the four levels of teaching" in 1969. Writing about teachers, he said the following:
A few are gifted with the ability to teach well without working at it. Others must learn the skill. For most of us, learning how to teach means studying and practicing and seeing what we did right and wrong. Let us close this series with a look at the four levels of teaching: At the bottom is the "Unconscious Incompetent." This poor creature who is a very poor teacher, but doesn't know it. He goes on in the same old way, perhaps lecturing in a dull, monotone manner, unaware that he is wasting his time and the students'. We can do nothing towards improving this fellow, because he can't be changed until he reaches the next level, which is the "Conscious Incompetent." Now we have a fellow that is bad, but fortunately, knows he is bad. He is looking for help, and the chances are pretty good that he will find a way to improve his methods. He is willing to try something new; he is willing to admit that maybe he isn't getting through to his students. We can work with him because he wants to become better. If we can show him the tools of the trade, he will start getting results, and he will know why. This means he now has been raised to the third level, the "Conscious Competent." This person is a good teacher and knows why. He knows what will work and what won't for him. He has experimented, changed, measured, reviewed and constantly looked for more and better ideas. This fellow knows his capabilities and his limitations. He knows about teaching. He probably would make a good teacher trainer.
There is a final level, though, and it is one that gives us a hard time, because he is the fellow that is a good teacher by nature. Somehow he just always does the right thing, says the right thing and gets the right results. The trouble is, he doesn't know why he does what he does. He is in the small class of people we will call the "Unconscious Competent." He's good, but he doesn't know what it is that makes him good. The one teaching assignment that he would probably fail at would be in trying to teach others how to teach. The only bad thing about having these kinds of people around is that it leads folks to say, "Well, good teachers are born, not made. You either have it or you don't." If we haven't accomplished anything else in this series, I hope we have proven that such a statement as this one is very, very untrue.
The definitions are slightly different, especially that of an unconscious competent, but you could substitute the word teacher for the word magician, and the general framework is still valid.
You can read the full article online at the Words Fitly Spoken website.