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Five Levels of Learning

As I continue to study high level performers of sports, arts, and business, I am more clearly seeing how ascending to the level of a “master” in any discipline is a multi-phased journey. While we may seek shortcuts to becoming great, and there are ways to expedite one’s progress, there is no circumventing a universal process of growth.

In addition, the singular commonality of all outstanding performers is that once they reach the next level of mastery, they choose to continue onward. In contrast, those who are content to rest at their current ability or understanding immediately halt the process of improvement. It is a choice all of us make in our respective fields – to consider ourselves “accomplished” and therefore, done, or to renew our commitment and claim the status of a “work-in-progress,” with endless opportunities to learn and grow.

Level 1 – Cognitive Understanding

At this introductory level, we seek answers to how and why certain behaviors or ideas are essential to excellence. We may research the topic, talk with experts, or seek someone who has the knowledge we need to strive for excellence. In the beginning, we don’t necessarily know what works, or why, so we strive for understanding. Once we gain those answers we are knowledgeable, but still far from proficient, much less an expert to any degree. Interestingly, many people are content to just know what it takes, and they choose not to endeavor to embody these lessons, personally. Perhaps that is because it takes effort, requires failure (and, therefore, humility) to move forward. Or maybe we had an interest, but do not have the passion it takes to continue to the next level of learning.

 Level 2 – Basic Competence

During this phase, we move beyond understanding and into action. We begin to learn the skills and apply the knowledge we’ve learned. To do so, you must make attempts, make mistakes, and make adjustments to your efforts before you begin to make strides toward competence. In any sport, discipline, or skill set – be it sales, sailing or any salient undertaking – you reach an initial point, if you will persist long enough, where your efforts begin to pay off. The ability to apply and demonstrate your learning is a great reward for your efforts. And in the most general sense, you can begin to say you “got it.” Again, this is where many people choose to stop learning. A rudimentary ability to perform their intended skills is sufficient to consider themselves “accomplished.” For others, however, this basic competence ignites a deep desire to learn more and move toward more challenging learning and even greater rewards.

Level 3 – Mastering the Basics

There is an important distinction between knowing something and being capable of doing it sometimes, and to varying degrees, and truly “owning” the ability. Regardless of how quickly or slowly you reached Level Two, the skill is still something that exists “outside” you. You may be able to perform successfully, but only when you are focused and conscious of your decisions. At Level Two, you are still operating intellectually, applying your knowledge through conscious decisions. Only through sheer repetition, often over an extended period of time, can you move to level three, when you will have truly mastered the fundamental. This level of proficiency is also called “unconscious competence,” because you are literally moving the routines from the forward part of your brain (your cerebrum where thinking and decision occurs) to your mid-brain and hind-brain, where you are utilizing motor reflexes, visualization and perception. Of course, the time involved to make this shift varies from task to task, but neuro-scientists agree that it happens due to increased repetition, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 successful attempts. Therefore, to reach Level Three requires time, persistence, and genuine passion (more than simply interest) to realize.

Level 4 – Beyond the Basics

If you’ve made it this far, you are likely hungry for more learning and even greater skills and abilities. Mastering the basics isn’t enough for you, so you journey onward. Often, this means unlearning some of the initial skills and habits in order to transcend limits. You will likely get worse before you get better, as you go back to being a “beginner.” Some people reject this backslide and choose to just remain a Level 3 performer. But for those who persist and are truly driven toward excellence, the new challenges become rewarding, even before they are mastered, as they represent newfound and potential “elite” levels of success. Again, over time and through exhaustive repetition, we move from conscious competence (initial successes and focused efforts) toward unconscious competence, as even the advanced skills and concepts become second nature.

Level 5 – The Mindset of Continuous Improvement

By now, the learner understands a fundamental truth about any meaningful undertaking: The more you know, the more you realize you do not know. Instead of viewing this as a crushing or defeating realization, the elite performer is energized and excited for this prospect. And for those who adopt this commitment to excellence, a never ending, ever expanding, thrilling journey awaits.

As you contemplate your current status and accomplishments and imagine what you could become, remember this: The most difficult limits you will face in your pursuit of excellence are the choices – whether you will remain where you are comfortable or embrace the limitless learning that still awaits you.

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