I’ve heard that we go through a progression of stages as we learn a new topic. Before starting to learn a topic, we’re so oblivious to the subject matter that we’re not even aware of what it’s about. We’re in Stage 1: we don’t know what we don’t know. Gradually, we become aware of our own limitations in knowledge, and we go to Stage 2: we know what we don’t know. Then, as our knowledge increases, we enter Stage 3: we know what we know. At this point we have the knowledge, but it’s new enough to us that we consciously have to think about using it. Finally, as we integrate the knowledge into our day-to-day lives, we go to Stage 4: we don’t know what we know. The knowledge becomes part of us, and it’s buried so deep inside us that we don’t even have to think about it to use it.
The progression sounds reasonable – it rings true with my own experience. But I’m convinced that some people get stuck in some of these stages.
Stuck in Stage 1: we don’t know what we don’t know
There are those who are stuck in Stage 1. They are fundamentally ignorant about a topic, yet they think they know everything about it, and can best be described as “often wrong but seldom in doubt.” People like this who aren’t aware of their own limitations are dangerous. Working with them is like walking on a frozen lake in the spring – we never know where the ice will be so thin that we fall through into the frigid water below.
If you have to work with Stage 1 people, try to get a second opinion for everything they recommend in the topic area. If you are the kind of person who gets stuck in Stage 1, then start figuring out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and learn to tell the difference. Ask yourself, “What can I learn that will help me do what I need to do?”
Stuck in Stage 2: we know what we don’t know
Then there are the people who get stuck in Stage 2. They get overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge, just as someone might be overwhelmed by trying to count the grains of sand on a beach. They lose perspective, and they forget their strengths by overshadowing them with all of their perceived weaknesses. Some of the Stage 2 people become knowledge junkies, always trying to read more, learn more, get a better understanding.
Not long ago, a university professor told me about one of his students who had graduated and gone on to a professional career. The former student kept calling the professor to get a good reference book or article for this problem or that. The professor was lamenting to me that he couldn’t make the former student understand that it’s time to just do something, and to quit trying to do so much research.
The student was stuck in Stage 2, frightened by all of the things in real life that aren’t taught in college. What the student was forgetting is that no matter how good we are or how prepared we are, we’re going to make mistakes. If you’re stuck in Stage 2, then you need to leverage your strengths and move on. Use what you know, learn about some of the things you need to learn, but don’t get overwhelmed by all of the things you don’t know.
Stuck in Stage 3: we know what we know
Being stuck in Stage 3 is a bit different. It’s usually the result of a lack of self-confidence. Most people who learn a new skill will eventually get comfortable with it. If you don’t get comfortable, then either you don’t really have the skill yet (keep trying), or the difference between your skill level and the skill levels of others is so great that you’re overwhelmed.
It helps to remember that the others who are more skilled have a lot more experience than you do. Don’t expect miracles overnight – just keep trying to get better and better every day. Ask yourself, “What can I do that will help me use what I’ve learned?”
Stuck in Stage 4: we don’t know what we know
What does it mean to be stuck in Stage 4? After all, Stage 4 is the point where we’ve integrated the knowledge into our life, so isn’t that the end stage?
Unfortunately, no it isn’t. Human beings are on a never-ending journey to constantly increase their knowledge and skill throughout their lives. After Stage 4 comes Stage 1 again, just at a different level of proficiency or for a different subject. Being stuck in Stage 4 is like being stuck in Stage 1: we’ve progressed to a certain level, and we’ve stopped learning. It may not seem quite as bad as being stuck in Stage 1, but the result is the same: no forward progress.
Learning comes in stages that help us learn, integrate the knowledge, use the knowledge, and then learn some more. If we focus on the learning without deriving any benefit from the learning, then we’re not progressing as individuals. If we focus on the doing without continuing to learn, then our progress stops as well. Improvement in our lives depends on both learning and doing in the proper mix.
Don’t get stuck in a learning stage: keep making things better for yourself, for your family, and for your business.