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.