When I talk about improving performance over time I often turn to the Inchworm concept, which I discussed most recently in the second half of my blog on perfectionism. Inchworm is a great illustration of what progress looks like, the ups and downs, and the fact that C-game improvement must match A-game improvement so your entire skill set and level of performance rises.
Well none of that happens without learning. Your A-game is not getting better without the acquisition of new skills. Your C-game is not getting better without learning how to correct your mistakes. Learning is at the heart of mental game improvement.
And, if you can be more efficient in your learning, you can be more efficient in your progression. To that end, I want to tell you about a well-known theory that might be helpful in giving you perspective on what the learning process looks like: the Adult Learning Model.
The theory itself is not overly complicated – as you are learning a skill you move through four distinct stages on your way to mastery. But once you understand what you’re really aiming at, the Adult Learning Model can make you aware of some shortcomings in your approach to learning in general. I’ve described the stages and an example below.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
This is your blind spot—the part of your trading, poker or mental game that you don’t know is weak. Actually, you don’t even have enough knowledge to understand where the weakness is yet. You truly don’t know what you don’t know.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
Reaching this stage means that through reflection, analysis or education /advice you’ve identified an area of weakness. Now you know where you’re weak, but that does not automatically mean you develop skill or competency. A common mistake here is assuming that simply identifying the problem means that you know how to correct it. While that can happen at times, most often recognition of weakness is an important first step and then you’ve got work to do.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
At this stage, you have made progress in correcting the weakness. There are varying levels within this stage and the stronger your competence, the easier it is to think about the concept or the correction. If you are tired or tilted and revert back to incompetence, however, it is an indication that the skill remains at this level and you must do more work to truly master it and move to the next stage.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
Once you’ve reached this stage knowledge is applied consistently, instantly, correctly, and without thinking—even under the most extreme circumstances. The power of reaching this level of competence/skill cannot be understated. Unconscious Competence is the holy grail of learning and all your work both technically and mentally should be aimed here.
These levels make sense when you begin to think about your own experiences in learning. An example that shows the Adult Learning Model in action is learning to drive a car.
Remember when you were a small child thinking about driving a car. You barely knew what a car was, let alone how to drive one. This is Unconscious Incompetence. Then as a teenager, you became much more aware of driving and perhaps were frustrated by the fact that you couldn’t drive. You became conscious of your incompetence.
Now think back to when you got behind the wheel for the first time. In order to drive a car, you first needed to learn how to: steer, step on the gas, watch the road, and change music all at the same time; parallel park; adjust to the speed of highway traffic; and deal with thousands of unique situations. Then, you needed to concentrate and think about all of these things so you didn’t kill yourself or others. This is Conscious Competence.
After driving for years, you no longer think about every single action needed to drive a car; your skill comes naturally and with little effort. You can handle driving, listening to music, talking to passengers, and extreme situations that arise, such as adverse weather, all without much thought. Driving is a skill now trained to the level of Unconscious Competence.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that as a trader or poker player all of your decisions and actions should be like driving a car. Autopilot is not the standard we’re after. Rather, you’re like a professional race car driver, who certainly can’t autopilot a race.
Unconscious Competence provides a higher base of knowledge/skill to operate from. This is the backend of your C-game moving forward, and it frees your mind from the burden of having to think about skills that previously required conscious attention. That makes it easier for you to perform at a higher level, including your absolute best.
Now that I’ve described the stages, let me say a quick word on learning styles before I explain a few common mistakes. For some learners, they do best when reading. Others like to listen. Others need a combo, which is why so many purchasers of my audiobooks tell me they go back and get the softcover as well. There’s also video and direct experience. No matter the style that works best for you, the stages stay the same. The mistakes also stay the same! Two of the most common mistakes are trying to do too much at once and getting ahead of yourself.
Top end performance only happens when your mind is clear, focused, and energized. That generally means you don’t have a lot of things you are actively trying to learn at once. When you are trying to do too much at once – whether that is learning technical aspects of trading/poker/golf, or trying to work on multiple aspects of your mental game simultaneously – you will actually slow your progress. Finding the right amount is important and understanding the Adult Learning Model helps you understand why.
When you involve consciousness (stages 2 and 3), it’s taking up bandwidth in your brain that you eventually want freed up. It’s why we work so hard towards resolution on mental game issues – so your mind can be freed up to just perform in your area of expertise (trading, poker, golf, etc.). When mental effort is required to manage emotions or apply skills, that means your mind is not able to work on something else.
The other most common mistake is getting ahead of yourself, meaning you prematurely think you’ve achieved mastery. Let’s say you go on a two-week vacation and when you get back, you’ve actually forgotten more than you expected. What happened there is you got a little overconfident because you weren’t aware that you were relying so much on preparation and energy to be in a good mental state. You felt like the new skills were mastered but true mastery is only proven when the skills are still there under intense pressure, or when you can come back from breaks and it’s all still accessible.
Reaching Unconscious Competence
So if Unconscious Competence is the holy grail of learning, the important question is what’s the fastest way to get there? The good news is it’s conceptually quite simple, you just need a lot of repetition in a variety of challenging situations.
There’s no shortcut for consistent effort and time dedicated toward mastery. But you can certainly speed up the process by being more organized in your warm-up and cool-down. Preparing to be at a high level gives you the opportunity to learn at a high level too. Then reflect, review and analyze your performance to direct your focus the following day.
Reaching Unconscious Competence or mastery can also come faster by working from a different perspective. When working on your mental game, joining or watching Office Hours is a great way to hear me talk about concepts in slightly different ways. Or for the traders out there, the Trading Psychology Masterclass I recorded provides multiple examples and stories that will help you get a firm grasp on the material so you can drive towards mastery of your mental game.
Another important way to speed the process to get to Unconscious Competence is connected to what you do before and after a break. Breaks are seemingly disruptive to the overall learning process. However, if you know you are going to take time off, write notes and consolidate what’s in your mind first. That allows you to clear your mind while you’re away, and also provides a roadmap for when you come back – reminding you where you are and what you need to focus on.
At the end of the day, the stages of learning are the same for everyone. How you move through them and how fast you’re able to do it is where you can gain an edge.