The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one
(Malcolm Forbes)

I’m not one of those people who needs to know every detail of how something works before I can be happy. I’m not remotely interested in the ones and zeros that make my computers function, nor do I have a notion of how to fix much of anything on my car beyond a flat tyre – For the most part, I’m just happy that these machines work for me at all. However, I will admit to being the kind of person who reads, and keeps, manuals; I do like to have an understanding of the basic operations of things and that is particularly true for the human mind.

Psychologists and educators tell us that there are a number of defined steps to learning anything. Cognitive learning consists of climbing some steps from being ‘Unconsciously Incompetent’ about something to becoming ‘Unconsciously Competent’ with regard to it after a focused period of thinking and practice.

I love that phrase, unconscious incompetence – it sounds like something Lady Bracknell might say:

To be consciously incompetent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to be unconsciously incompetent looks like carelessness …

To move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence usually requires an intervention – you try something for the first time and realise that you can’t do it; or someone points out to you how bad you are at something you thought you had been doing reasonably well.

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The “Aha!” moment of conscious incompetence is the tricky one. It is at that point that you either decide to make a change, stay as you are, or enter the Twilight Zone of denial. And we all know how much human beings loooove change …

And the joke of it is, that change at this level doesn’t even take very long. I’m told that to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence on most things takes an average of 21 days. Just three lousy weeks! However, it is at this advancing stage that most people quit, because that’s when they find things really hard.

Either physically – they weigh up the pain and suffering of learning or changing against the relative lack of pain they felt when they were blissfully ignorant and they plump for the status quo.

Or mentally – because the ego plays a big part in all of this. Once we become invested in an approach, it’s like we’ve fallen in love with it. “It’s not perfect,” we say, “but then again, what is?” Frequently, we find the conscious effort of changing our approach just a bit too taxing and so keep doing it the old way. Human beings usually try to characterise this as persistence or optimism; in mules, we call it something quite different.

How do you learn? When do you learn? What causes you to quit a learning effort? What falls into place to help you succeed? I contend that you need to know these things about yourself.


I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught