How to Learn Anything or The Learning Process, And Why You Need To Know It.
By Steve Faulkner - Thursday, June 11, 2020
At the end of the previous post, I mentioned that I would provide some tools to hopefully enhance your learning and development. For me, this one is and continues to be, a gamechanger. Like all of the models I use, this is very simple, but don't confuse simplicity with a lack of power. In life, as in magic, we so often search for complex solutions, because they can make us feel as though all of that time practising and reading has been worth it. With maturity comes the understanding that sometimes the most profound answers are revealed in the least complex of ways. Or put more simply, it's not rocket science. The difference is that if we take time to sit and consciously consider the stuff that isn't rocket science, we start to become way more effective, in pretty much everything we do. And of course happier, which is the point of all of it. This makes it much more important than rocket science.
Why Understanding Learning Matters. A Lot.
I was lucky. At the age of twelve, I learned something, entirely by accident. I didn't know what I had learned until many years later when I realised there were names and labels for what I was continually experiencing - a lightbulb moment if you like.
A quick story:
Like many of us, I wasn't a cool kid at primary school. My older brother wore the latest LaCoste t-shirts, had the latest Nike jacket (some of you will remember), seemed to have lots of entertaining friends and did popular activities such as sport and break-dancing. I was struggling to eradicate the 'puppy fat', had one friend and didn't really do anything that could outwardly be seen as...anything. Nothing wrong with that at the age of 11, but for a short time, I remember feeling desperate to have some kind of identity.
Around this time, my mum took me to the video library (more of you will remember), and I found the answer. An instructional video called 'Breakdance - you can do it'. This was around the time that just about the coolest thing in the world was break-dancing (thinking about it, it probably still is). Imagine if I could 'do it'! I got to work and very quickly realised that there was more to spinning on your wrist that a tea towel and a kitchen floor. Though I decided that the title of the tape was misleading, I was still having a lovely time. So I decided to stop working and start playing. I think that this was my first experience of Flow. I was still practising, I just didn't really know it.
Sometime later at school, my only friend and I were involved in our usual activity of pretending to be breakdancers, and all of a sudden, I popped a move. I remember the feeling. It came from nowhere. One moment I couldn't, and then I could. The move that I had seen on that tape, I could now do. There seemed to be no continuum, one minute I couldn't even get close, and then it was there. I still think it's the closest thing to real magic that a human can experience.
I very quickly transitioned from unknown to known. All of a sudden, I had an identity and a skill. I was good at something that everyone else wanted to be good at, and very quickly, everybody knew about it. It was intoxicating. Incredible as the human memory is, it does tend to provide a somewhat unreliable account of what was actually going on. Still, one thing I can remember is how it felt. The memory is so strong because it's never gone away. In fact, every major decision in my life, for many years, was driven by it.
That's all very nice, but more important than what happened, was what it gave me. Unconsciously, I learned something simple but profound:
If you keep doing something you love, you'll succeed, even if, initially, you're terrible at it.
Not exactly pithy I know. And if it's true, why do so many of us, when undertaking a new challenge, quit? There are many reasons - which I'll cover in upcoming posts - but often, premature bailing is due to a lack of trust in, or knowledge of, the process.
I got lucky. I had autonomously found something that I loved to do, my first Flow activity. Just when I was learning how the world, and my response to it, worked. This provided a belief that stuck. It stuck because I found it.
What I had unconsciously discovered, and began to have an immovable faith in, was the stages of learning, otherwise known as the Four Stages of Competence (Noel Burch 1973). There are many ways of looking at it, some more scientific, but I've found this model to be the most usable. It's helped me, and in my training sessions, countless others move through many challenges, some quite considerable. There are, according to this model, four stages of learning anything. A new habit, a new environment, being with a new partner, thinking in a new way, executing a double lift, creating rapport with an audience. Anything new, you'll go through this or a version of it.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence: You don't know what you don't know.
This is the stage before the work begins. At this point, you may or may not know that something needs to change. For example, when I was horrified to discover that, after performing a coin vanish for years, I was exposing the coin between my fingers. I was completely unaware until watching a performance on video. Gutted.
Or you may know that something needs work, but not realise how much time and effort will be required. For example, before learning the Tobias Dostal's phone vanishing effect, 'Optix'. I remember getting the gimmick, thinking that it looked pretty easy and that I would learn it in about an hour. A few months later, and it's still not there.
This is why self-awareness, feedback, mentorship and community can be so valuable. I've met a few people who have, unfortunately never left this stage, due to a deficiency in one, or all of the above.
Generally, this is a happy place. Ignorance is bliss.
Conscious Incompetence: You know what you don't know. Realisation Dawns
This is where we realise that we need (or want) to learn, adapt or improve something. With a skill such as the coin vanish above, the issue can be obvious. However, in many contexts, this can be a little less clear. In the current situation, we have all had to adapt. In the beginning, we didn't really know what it would mean. A few people wearing masks at Blackpool seemed a little over the top, and my life wasn't really going to change (Unconscious Incompetence). Two months later, I had lost much of my work, had to home school my kids and I was in a very different world. I wasn't sure how to go forward, I was Consciously Incompetent. There seemed to be no clear solution. So like so many of us, I felt vulnerable, worried and frustrated.
This can be the most challenging stage, and the key to getting through it is understanding your emotions. This will help you, or anyone you know who may be struggling. Whether it's going back to fix a sleight, vanishing a phone, or dealing with a considerable lifestyle change, it can often feel exasperating, exhausting and sometimes impossible. Especially if other people are involved: learning something that others can do can be so frustrating! This is where the excuses start to come in: 'I have no hand/eye coordination, my hands are too small etc.
If you manage to overcome the self-limiting beliefs and work through the sticking points, you'll have a more accurate prediction of the required time and effort you'll need to invest.
There is nothing wrong with deciding to quit with this new information, but the decision shouldn't be based on whether you can do it or not, but whether you want to do it or not. This is because the can is usually made possible by the want, or in some cases, the need.
Conscious Competence: You know, and can do. But you still have to think about it.
Now you're over the hump. You've been through the pain barrier, and there's light at the end of the tunnel. New habits are being formed. The fingers are now covering the coin, the phone vanish is looking OK, and I'm beginning to adapt to a lifestyle that doesn't involve social interaction. None of this means that it's easy, just easier. Sometimes, this can be enough. I know how to use Microsoft Word, but I still sometimes need to look up a shortcut. That's OK because my life doesn't involve enough of Microsoft Word for it to be a worry. I need to be functional. But in many aspects of my life, magic being one of them, I have to keep going. For a while, my new coin vanish looked OK, but not natural. I knew how to do it, but I hadn't mastered it. I'm at this point with my Optix vanish too. As magicians, only when a sleight becomes part of us - when we don't have to think about it - does it become useable in performance. I'm now making the work/kids/life things work, but I'm still losing my s&*t every now and then and having to adapt even further.
At this stage, the emotions are usually positive but can be frustrating, as we can plateau, which can result in a lack of motivation. Keep going!
Unconscious Incompetence: You've nailed it?
You're there! This is where we have, without wanting to sound too woo-woo, become one with the new way. The skill or behaviour becomes second nature. The coin vanish happens as I engage my spectator without them now wondering why I have kept it in the same hand. Again, I have to stress that this isn't about perfection. It's about being able to use the skill, carry out the new behaviour or exist in a new environment without a great deal of conscious effort.
Importantly, this doesn't mean that the work stops. If you don't maintain your skills, think about your behaviours or keep up to date with your development, you can find yourself back at stage one, blissfully unaware that the world has moved on. Complacency is your enemy!
Using the model
So how can this help us overcome the stumbling blocks that prevent so many from learning? Knowledge is power. If we understand and trust the process, and the feelings that we may experience at the different stages, we'll know what to expect. So when we feel the anxiety, frustration and sometimes the profound hopelessness of 'Conscious Incompetence', we see that it's normal. Our mind can play tricks on us and can convince us that these emotions are a signal to quit, or evidence that we are not 'talented' enough, and it's as convincing as a Tamariz Turnover. It can be as if every pore of you is telling you to quit.
There are various things you can do to get you through this stage. I find that external inspiration can really help. Find those people who have done what you are trying to achieve. Observe them. Ask questions, read books and model behaviours (with an understanding that it may be different for you). You'll soon see that they are flawed humans like all of us. They just know, and trust, the process.
As a child, I was lucky enough to practice that Caterpillar at just the right time. Many people reading this would have no doubt had the same experience with magic. But many didn't, and the longer we wait, the harder it is to form new beliefs and approaches. But it's never too late, it just may take a bit of work to get with the programme. Yes, some will learn faster, and some, like me, will struggle. But if you start the process with faith and a smile on your face, every stage can be a joy. Which I suppose, is why we do it.
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