The Benefits of Not Knowing it All

I had to have a root canal done this week. I know, lucky me.

Off I went to the Tufts Dental School in Boston where I had one done about 20 years ago. While my motivation back then was the significant cost savings, that was only part of it this time around.

As you might expect — and maybe you’re having the same reaction, too — my family and friends were surprised to learn I was choosing to have a student perform oral surgery.

“Don’t you want someone with a lot of experience?” they asked with frightened faces.

Well, yes and no.

Of course I want someone who knows what they’re doing, which is why I could take comfort in knowing that the student would be supervised by a doctor with years in the business.

On the other hand, many years of experience isn’t always a good thing.

To clarify, let’s take a look at the four stages of competence.

  1. Unconscious incompetence. In this stage of learning, you don’t know how to do something, but you also don’t realize you’re even missing it. This is the “you don’t know what you don’t know” part; or the “ignorance is bliss” idea.You can hang out here for your whole life or until you get that itch to kick things up a notch. When you decide you want to step out of your comfort zone and head into your stretch zone, you now enter Stage 2.
  2. Conscious incompetence. When you’re facing conscious incompetence, things can feel pretty scary; even overwhelming. You are very aware of how much you don’t know and you can feel like you’ll never be able to learn it all.This is where I see a lot of clients wanting to quickly jump from where they are to where they want to be; to just hurry up and be done with it. Doing so, however, can cause you to miss some vital steps and land you at the perceived finish line, looking like nothing you had hoped.

    Mistakes are a vital part of the learning process, so be gentle with yourself. It’s through these mistakes that you’ll discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

  3. Conscious competence. As you successfully complete similar tasks or projects over and over, you enter into the Conscious Competence stage. In this stage, you know you can do this. You’ve proven to yourself that it’s possible.Although the completion of it still requires a lot of focus and concentration, you know you have what it takes, and you know the benefit of taking your time and being present.

    While you can still experience some impatience here, you can see marked progress in your learning curve. After repetitive action, you’ll now be heading into Stage 4.

  4. Unconscious competence. This is where you’ve mastered a skill so much that you can do it without much thought at all. Think back to when you learned to drive a car. You sat in the driver’s seat, mindful of buckling your seat belt, adjusting mirrors, starting the engine, and checking all around you before moving.On your way to your destination, you’re hyper-aware of your surroundings and tentative as you turn a corner or see a car pulling out from a side street.

    Fast forward to a year or so down the road (pun intended!) and you can hop in the car quickly, get settled, and off you go, likely in about a third of the time.

    You’re so unconsciously competent at this skill, that you can even multitask while doing it – change the radio or have a phone conversation (though not a good idea!).

    You no longer need to focus intently on the small steps to drive from one place to another. In fact, you can sometimes arrive at your destination having little recollection of how you got there!

What does all this have to do with my root canal? Well, my dentist is in the Consciously Competent stage. While he is confident in his abilities, it’s not  second nature to him so he still has to pay close attention while performing the procedure.

Also, I haven’t yet become a number in his assembly line of patients, so his bedside manner was fantastic. He took the time to explain what he was doing, checked in regularly to be sure I was okay, and even gave me his personal cell number should any issues arise!

All of this for a third of the price of a traditional dentist’s office!

See? The final stage of learning isn’t always the best place to be despite our being in such a rush to get there.

It’s easy to become impatient as you travel these stages and it can be tempting to throw in the towel during the rocky parts. But, like any other journey, there are lots of gems to be found along the way. Unexpected opportunities arise that you’d otherwise miss. Your big dream could be met with an even bigger one.

Use that possibility (and likely reality!) as encouragement when you’re feeling frustrated or stuck. No amount of whining or resisting is going to make the messy middle disappear so you might as well buckle up and enjoy the ride!

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