“A certain naïveté is prerequisite to all learning. A certain optimism is prerequisite to all action.” — George Leonard
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.
I’ve been a beginner many times in my life, and most recently, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’m starting as a white belt — a true beginner in every way — and writing about my journey as it unfolds. My goal is to give the sport all I’ve got and see just how far I can go in the process.
When I first started training, I was excited and hopeful about the possibilities ahead of me. Then came the rude awakening of just how long and winding of a road I had ahead of me. It’s not uncommon for a jiu-jitsu practitioner to take ten years to get their black belt.
Still, I haven’t let that dampen my enthusiasm for the sport. In the past, I tried to skip steps to attempt to speed up the learning process. But I’m now wise enough to know that being grounded in reality and starting where I’m at will result in faster progress than trying to rush through.
This up and down cycle doesn’t just apply to learning a sport like jiu-jitsu. Psychologists have found certain universal stages that apply to all new learning. Whether you’re learning a new sport or athletic skill or taking up art, business, or music, there are five distinct stages to learning anything new.
Becoming aware of these 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.
Stage one: Unconscious incompetence
The first stage of learning is called unconscious incompetence. In this stage of learning, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Usually, we are filled with hope and optimism for our new pursuit. Every little thing we learn feels like we are doubling our knowledge base. And for a good reason: we probably are.
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.
Once you know just enough to get by, you can start experimenting a little, making it even more fun. You’re not judging yourself yet because you don’t have enough knowledge yet to do so. Because you only know a little, you aren’t thinking much, which makes you more likely to catch small moments of flow; those magical moments when you lose track of time and everything feels right with the world.
In the first few weeks of training jiu-jitsu, I fit squarely into the conscious incompetence stage, or what I like to call the blissful beginner stage of learning.
This is the most fragile stage of learning for two main reasons:
First, it’s common to believe you’re further along than you are. In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, and you can see evidence of this all over the internet.
Many beginners may even get bored and lose interest during this stage, thinking they know so much that there’s no challenge to be had. On the contrary — they just don’t know how much they don’t know yet.
Second, because you think you know more than you do during this stage, what you do know is inadequate and unlikely to give you the results you want. Again, this ties back to not knowing how much you don’t know.
Whatever the reason, many people make excuses during this early stage of learning because it feels easier than confronting reality: you have a long road ahead of you, and you don’t have enough knowledge to start on your own. Both reasons make this blissful beginner stage the one during which most people give up.
Stage two: Conscious incompetence
Once you get past the unconscious incompetence stage — if you make it that far, and many people don’t — you arrive at the second stage of learning, or the conscious incompetence stage.
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 what I call 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.
This is also the stage where most people get overwhelmed at the magnitude of their undertaking and daunted by the long road ahead. As a white belt, this is when you realize that it may take you ten years or more to reach black belt level and just how much hard work and repetition that will entail.
So how do you make it through the suck? Accept that it’s inevitable. Learn to recognize it and trust that you will make progress with time and intentional practice.
Stage three: Conscious competence
If you’re one of the few that make it past the suck, you then reach the next stage of learning: conscious competence.
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.
In jiu-jitsu, this is the point when you remember techniques but have to think before executing them. For example, in my training, this means I have to think about going for a triangle choke rather than just executing the technique automatically.
The key in this stage of learning is to keep getting your reps in. Consistent, focused practice is what will help make those conscious learnings automatic.
Stage four: Unconscious competence
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.
In the context of jiu-jitsu, this would be the point where you roll without thinking and capitalize on all you’ve learned.
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.
I’m nowhere near this stage yet in my own jiu-jitsu training, but I have reached this in many other areas of my life, from learning to handstand, skateboard, and even cook. It takes time and patience to get to this stage, but it’s well worth sticking with the process to get here.
Stage five: Conscious unconscious competence
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.
On the contrary, some of the best coaches are people who learned their skill or sport slightly later in life. This is because they can still remember those early, uncomfortable stages of learning and better emphasize with beginners.
No matter where you’re at in the learning process, try not to get discouraged or think you need to jump steps. Put in the time and don’t give up in each stage.
And keep going.