The Rollercoaster of Learning


It’s funny how, when you first notice something, it tends to reappear almost regularly thereafter in various situations and place and in various forms. Not long ago, I read about the four stages of learning in a little ebook by the Canadian photographer, David duChemin. Then, not long after, an explanation of those same four stages appeared in a book I then read, by the photographer Rick Sammon. Interestingly enough this book I had bought long ago, but only recently got around to read.

After those two first encounters, the four stages have appeared in many different circumstances, until I finally learned that they originate from Gordon Training International. Initially known as the «four stages for learning any new skill», the four states of competence was a learning model originally introduced by Noel Burch, an employee of the institute. First drafted in the 1970s, this «conscious competence» learning model is described as the psychological states that are involved in transforming skill incompetence to competence or outright mastery.

The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, and then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

Being one who teaches workshop and give lectures, and also being passionate about understanding the creative process, this was for me an eye-opener. On some level The Four Stages of Learning is pure common sense, but seeing it in writing made me realize how well they describe my own journey as a photographer, as well. Because it is a journey.

As duChemin writes in his lovely, little book Master the Craft; «Mastery is a tricky thing. It’s not so much a destination as a journey. That journey takes us through predictable stages:
• Unconscious incompetence
• Conscious incompetence
• Conscious competence
• Unconscious competence
We go from not knowing what we don’t know, to knowing how much we really don’t know, to learning more and being very aware of what we know, to finally knowing a great deal but being able to operate in that knowledge somewhat intuitively.»

The first stage, unconscious incompetence, can also be describe as «I don’t know what I don’t know». In photographic terms, it describes the entry level to the craft, the first encounter, maybe, with a camera. When we first get into photography, we take some shots, look at them on the camera’s display, and say something like, «hey, that’s cool, I did it!»

For most people that is probably good enough, but others maybe get caught by a more profound interest in the photographic process. They enter into a new stage where they search for knowledge and understanding. This is the conscious incompetence stage, «I know what I don’t know». This stage can hit us like a ton of bricks. It can be frustrating and it can be demanding. We realize that we need help and have potential. This is the first step, really, in becoming a good photographer. We maybe read books, attend workshops, take online training courses and so on to get a better understanding.

At some point we reach the third stage, conscious competence, «I grow, and know and it starts to show», or, «I know what I know». Knowing we are good is a good feeling. However, it takes a lot of hard work to get to this level of learning. At this stage, we also know that there is plenty out there that we still don’t know, and we may still at times feel inadequate or encounter low self esteem. Nevertheless, we do know what we know.

As you build experience and expertise, you reach the stage of unconscious competence—wherein you do not have to think about the activity that you are very good in. You use your skills unconsciously and keep building your level of understanding on a more unconscious level. This is the level we all want to reach in the things we care passionately about. We don’t really have to think too much about what we are doing—we just do it. The rollercoaster ride of making pictures is not over; we still have creative ups and downs. Nevertheless, being on the rollercoaster is much more fun than being on the merry-go-around of making middle-of-the-road photos, as Rick Sammon points out in his book «Creative Visualization».

This is what duChemin writes about the last stage: «To me, mastery is about getting to the point where the tools in my hand no longer get in my way. It means getting to the point where I more easily reach a state of flow in my creativity. It doesn’t remotely mean the creative efforts themselves come more easily; they may come harder. Once you’ve been doing this for 30 years, you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and your standards have grown along with your craft. You always have something new to learn.»

In the end, that is all what matters to me; to keep learning. I may have creative ups and downs, but learning more about my craft, my skills, myself and the world around me is for me always a driving force and ultimately nothing but pure enjoyment.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

78 thoughts on “The Rollercoaster of Learning

  1. An excellent article Otto, it really cleared away some of the anxiety I sometimes feel about “not being skilled enough” with my camera or not being where I want to be with my learning. This is so helpful!! I really enjoyed the read and also the reference to a fellow Canadian too. Must admit, still at “conscious incompetence” with my manual settings – but now smiling as I write this! 🙂

  2. Smashing photo and wise words as ever Otto. My tools do no longer get in the way, I handle my camera in an unconscious manner but how true it is that the creative efforts themselves do not come more easily. A very enjoyable read.

  3. I advocate lifelong learning and am an educator. Those four stages brought a huge smile for their insight and poignancy, especially because the creative process is about the inner voice and how it receives the universe’s gems. Everyday brings a gift of small and sometimes larger layer to one’s repertoire. Learning is the way we expand our spirit and soul, which urges us to find our passion and purpose.

  4. Good afternoon, dear Otto,
    did you ever come across Gurdjieff’s original enneagram? In this system learning is seen in 9 stages and it seems to me that this 4 stages model is just a shortened version of Gurdjieff’s modell. But maybe all these models (there exist also 7 stages models of learning) are quite alike because it’s obvious how learning takes place.
    Gurdjieff thought that you only can reach mastery if you teach what you have learned. Without teaching no mastery! Well, that was his idea …
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley

  5. So much truth in that. I get frustrated when I think of stuff I probably should know to improve. I also can look back and see an improvement from where I started. It’s all the learning process.

  6. I was amused by your comment that the “conscious incompetence” stage can “hit us like a ton of bricks.” While I was on my three week trip, I left this, word for word, on the blog of a friend who happens to be an excellent photographer and who had posted a photo of fog hanging over the Massachusetts landscape:

    “I swear to goodness. This is so beautiful it makes me want to pack my bags, erase all my cards, and just go home. I’m so depressed over the crap photos I’ve gotten on this trip — I just don’t know what’s the matter. On the other hand — I am on midwestern prairies, which is a different sort of subject. And, after all that fog in Arkansas, the good people at the Tallgrass Prairie here in Kansas decided it was time for some prescribed burns — and that sent billows of smoke over every single danged place I was trying to take photos. When I looked at the results — well, I just was depressed.”

    Of course, when I came home I found a few photos worth sharing, and that suggests something else: these stages aren’t necessarily sequential. We can live in one or two simultaneously and, depending on which skill we’re working on, maybe more. When we’re overwhelmed by our own incompetence, it’s often worth stepping back and taking a second look. There probably are signs of growth, of growing competence, which we’ve been blind to.

    1. I think that is an excellent advise. There is always growth if you look for it, and yes, I believe, like you say, that we can be at different learning stages simultaneous. Thank you for sharing your experience, which in the end, was quite fulfilling I believe. 🙂

  7. Yes, Otto…(a NW good morning first of all) what I’ve learned in “learning and teaching ones self” to become competent and proficient, is to get to the point where the mastery of a skill becomes a memory muscle…which relates to the Stage Four of your essay. The 263 “crap” watercolours I paint (which in reality have certainly surpassed that 263 number), and as I continue to paint in an attempt to finally execute “excellent watercolours”, the technique and expertise I now incorporate and execute in a project…is…encouraging. Your post has reminded me about the importance of the learning process, which in your words…”we’ve been blind to”. We oft times are blind to our own creative process and progress. Thank you for the reminder to step back, look back, but then look forward, and be in the “forward”.

    1. I think it’s very easy to overlook one’s own progress, simply because it comes in small steps most of the times. Only when you look back and compare to where you started out, you see how far you have actually come. I hope to see some new water colours on your blog soon?

  8. Great post , Otto…I am a firm advocate of lifelong learning, and try to continue my own education. David du Chemin’s books have been useful tools in my photographic journey recently, and will continue to inspire, I wonder, did I learn of him from you?

  9. I love reading your posts, Otto, because what you have to say about photography applies to other creative process. As you know, my primary creative pursuit is writing. Photography is a secondary pursuit. But they go down similar, if not the same, paths of learning and discovery. So always food for thought here. And, of course, I love the photography. Cheers.

    1. Thanks for the lovely words, Elen. As I am not only interested in photography, as you are not only interested in writing, it’s quite natural to think beyond pure photography when I write these posts, so I am very happy when what I write feels like it has value beyond the theme itself.

  10. This reminds me of my highschool Physics teacher who taught me how to get 100% on every exam… the unconscious incompetence goes without saying, but he said ‘3 is the magic number… 1st time is learning, 2nd time is practice, 3rd time IT’S YOURS’

  11. Your post, Otto, made me think about the problems with my shoulder I once had. I therefore went to the fisiotherapist to learn exercises because I didn’t know where they derived from. At the beginning I could manage to do them right but slowly I learnt them. Now, I do them automatcally!! I could even teach them.:) Many thanks for your highly useful point. Best regards Martina

  12. Wonderful post, Otto, accompanied by a great image. The four stages ring true in various stages of my creativity. I love the idea of “state of flow” and I think it is a feeling that rises and falls and keeps me searching. I really enjoy your thoughts on this topic. Thanks.

  13. That is a very useful way of considering the four stages of mastering the Ability to See. And linguistically I like the words used. It instantly reminded of a famous quote by Donald Rumsfeld: ‘There are known knowns. These are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know’. The stages of knowing are of course in reverse order, in that quote but they are still saying the same thing.

  14. I recognise all these stages, Otto – true signposts on the to path to becoming a writer. And still the learning does not stop, because once you start, how can it? There’s always something new to absorb and understand. Great post. Thank you.

  15. Unconscious incompetence
    Conscious incompetence
    Conscious competence
    Unconscious competence

    So true, I got to teach people new to my art, those skills, most people totally unfamiliar with the art have not the slight idea, then they start to learn, but they are conscious they are not doing it right, until with practice they achieve proficiency,, but frequently I catch them hesitating, and interrupting their flow, and what I tell them is : Do not stop and think about it, the moment your mind reflects on it, you lose it and do it wrong, it’s when you do not think about it anymore you make the skill yours, and flows naturally like when you drive your car, you just do what it need to be done without thinking. :-).

    1. That is a great advice. I believe the same is true for photography and probably any art. I try not to think too consciously in the moment of capturing photos. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  16. I understand this concept Otto. I probably would not have a few of years ago. Though I like to photograph and paint, at heart I am a poet, and with years of writing I have progressed, one might say I have attained a degree of conscience competence. I often go back to old work and find where improvements can be made, find gaffes that jump out at me. Thank you for an interesting and educational post. In addition, thank you for the splendid photograph.

  17. Mycket givande inlägg Otto, känns högaktuellt för mig i mina försök med vidvinkelobjektivet. Ska kolla upp Creative visualization av Rick Sammon. Den kreativa processen intressera mig mycket.
    Tack för finfina kommentarer.

  18. Mycket intressant läsning, Otto. Jag är definitivt medveten om min inkompetens när det gäller fotografi…resan till nästa nivå känns lång.

  19. I think part of pleasure in teaching someone else things stored in unconscious competence is that it makes us think consciously about what we know, and sometimes challenges us to examine whether or not we need to rethink any aspects of that knowing. Great post as always!

  20. This article is really a jewel to me. It put into words what I feel about my own competences and incompetences, where I want to go to, I guess I know. That it is a long learning curve, yes. But it is something I want to do. I also feel supported by the paragraph on the ups and downs. Thank you Otto. Very interesting!

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