It is a Sunday afternoon and the parents are away with some friends. Their 15-year-old son discovers dad has left the car keys on the kitchen table. He can’t resist. He had watched his parents drive many times, so in his mind he knew how to drive. He takes the family car out for a spin, but in his effort not to be too close to the parked cars, he sideswipes an oncoming car at low speed. You know the rest of the story.
The boy’s joyride is an example of the lowest level of competence, namely, “unconscious incompetence.” He didn’t know that he didn’t know how to drive.
I read about a surgeon in a northern European hospital who had gone to a heart-transplant seminar in London. In his words,” I can do that.” So back at home, he lined up a couple of candidates and booked an operating room for a whole night. After a full daytime shift, he performed his first two heart transplants with the assistance of one intern. The patients lived.
He may have been a technically competent surgeon, but he was wading into waters where he was not competent. I suspect he became quite conscious of that once he started. His foray into the heart transplant arena provides an example of the second level of competence, “conscious incompetence.”
The third level of competence is “conscious competence.” This is the level of new drivers after completing driver training and passing the tests. If their training was good, they are usually quite vigilant about scanning, not following too closely, signaling and shoulder checks. They are conscious of all these things as they competently drive the car.
As these same new drivers gain experience and refine their skills, most of their driving practices become habit and then become unconscious. The experienced good driver is now “unconsciously competent.”
With regard to many life and work skills, the progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence comes with training and practice.
However, there is a fifth level of competence. We can think of it as “aware competence,” or “awakened competence.” A Harvard study of a group of housekeepers partially illustrates the fifth level.
Physiological measures were taken on 84 female room attendants working at various hotels. Some were informed that the work they did was good exercise and met the Surgeon General’s criteria for an active lifestyle. They were given detailed examples of how their work was exercise.
They were all retested four weeks later. Although there was no change in activity level and no change in eating habits, those who now knew that their work constituted exercise, compared to the others who were not told this, on average “showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.” (Psychological Science, 2007)
Apparently, just to be aware that the work they did constituted good exercise was enough to produce the effects of a good exercise program.
Another example: After a million miles of driving, I was unconsciously competent. One year when faced with a daily, three-hour, round-trip commute in heavy, aggressive traffic, I found myself getting fatigued. Then quite suddenly, I started to become very aware of my driving and very present with it. The commute became a conscious meditation, a ritual that left me both relaxed and energized.
When you awaken a practice so ingrained that it is second nature, it becomes a conscious meditative ritual. Awakened competence is a magical way to be fully present. For only in the present do we heal, grow and love.