The One Way of the Beginner

This meme keeps turning up so often that I’ve decided to backlog it as something to research more deeply. It’s about the 4 stages of competence due to Maslow. Long-time reader Ilya Lehrman and I discussed this idea, among many others, over lunch at the Riverstone Cafe. Ilya introduced me to the related idea of Shu Ha Ri, which I am embarrassed to admit, I hadn’t heard of before, despite managing agile software development teams for many years (I’ve relied mostly on learning agile development/product management via apprenticeship and haven’t actually read the major classics or taken any training; I have an aversion to that kind of training). The discussion meandered to broader musing about the fundamental idea of learning. One idea in particular, I want to share: beginners wanting only one way to do something.

The four levels of competence are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence (i.e., Duning-Kruger land)
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence (“mastery” if you like that kind of lingo)

As a learner progresses through them, a great deal happens that we could talk about endlessly, but I wanted to note one interesting thing in particular. To use Ilya’s words (I don’t know if he was quoting someone else), “beginners want only one way to do something.”

This leads to an interesting effect when a beginner who has learned only one by-the-book way to do something encounters somebody with enough mastery to do the same thing in a million improvised ways. If no status or expertise indicators are available, in such situations, the beginner will often assume that the master is incompetent because s/he is doing it “wrong.” I suppose this is one specific way the Duning-Kruger effect plays out.

I have no idea whether this view of learning is implicit somewhere in the view I’ve developed in the book, so I am going to think about it. If it isn’t, I am going to incorporate it in the next edition. If you can connect the dots for me, please do so.

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  1. For a really excellent comparison between folks at all four stages, check out Surgical Scripts, Master Surgeons Think Aloud About 43 Common Surgical Problems:

    There’s no talk about the 4 stages model, but the surgeons’ talk-alouds show big differences between 3rd year med school students, chief residents, and master surgeons and how they approach problems.

    I read this book after reading Tempo and found it a great transition. You can see a lot of your narrative-based view on strategy in the patterns of the master surgeons.

  2. VGR, this is one of those bizarre coincidences… you seem to have posted this on May 4 second half US time, probably May 5 morning time here in India so I couldn’t have read it in time (anyway haven’t been frequenting here these past two weeks).

    The first half of May 5 I conducted a creative thinking workshop. The previous two days I was constantly tweaking the details in my mind, adding something, re-sequencing etc.

    Later that afternoon when I met one of the participants the feedback about the session was that it was eye-opening and a lot of fun but… in effect, what the person said amounted to Ilya’s great insight: beginners look for one way to do it!

    I wish this was posted a day earlier and that I had read it.

    Additional thoughts on the learning stages, a subject we touched indirectly in an old post of yours on 2×2 grids:

    -I think when a learner first moves from conscious incompetence to conscious competence is when s/he prefers the one way and focuses on repeated practice

    -As conscious competence is achieved on that one known method, the person either stays stuck at that hobby level performance, or gets bored, or, more likely, becomes aware of other methods, advanced tips and levels of proficiency possible

    -On those new tricks or alternative ways, the person is back at the conscious incompetence stage and needs to learn to reach conscious competence

    -As the proponents of deliberate practice point out, repeated practice helps attain mastery but only the kind of directed practice involving reflection and proficiency building, not blind repetition

    -My thought right now is that if we have to help a beginner learn one useful method out of many, it has to be:
    o reasonably simple (without dumbing down too much)
    o not necessarily the best
    o preferably one that forms a good “stem” so that other improved/modern methods can be learned later as variants or “branches” (or exceptions that could be more complex “stems”)

    I don’t recall hearing about this looping needed between conscious incompetence and conscious competence stages in order to reach the unconscious competence stage in a non-trivial skill area. Not that I have searched hard to check, but just in case that’s true and you happen to write on this, you owe me a coffee :-)

    • The looping between conscious incompetence and conscious competence… I think that’s exactly the point of kata as in my latest post. I think martial artists have thought of it.

  3. The “beginner fails to recognize an expert” bit seems quite like the Curse of Development and the attendant status interactions you outlined in Gervais III.

    • Yes, though that aspect was more about false confidence (the Duning-Kruger effect) while this is about the cause of the false confidence. I just posted another related piece on functional fixedness. This whole thing is turning into a richer view of learning for me.