The stages of competence theory states that when you try to learn a new skill, you progress through four predictable stages:
- Unconscious incompetence. You're bad at the new skill, but because you're so new, you lack appreciation of just how bad you are.
- Conscious incompetence. You're starting to learn the new skill, and you're beginning to appreciate that you're not very good at it.
- Conscious competence. You've learned to be good at the new skill if you work very hard.
- Unconscious competence. You've internalised your new skill to the point where it's second nature.
You start out as a wide-eyed newbie. You've banged out a first draft and you think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Because you don't understand the mechanics of writing, you can't see why your work is bad (unconscious incompetence). In your puppy-like enthusiasm, you join a bunch of critique groups and throw your work up, expecting everyone to see awesomeness - just like you do.
Except nobody thinks it's awesome. You have the sobering experience of realising that your work may not be very good at all (conscious incompetence). Actually, it's terrible.
How do you get better? What is better, exactly? Will you ever get to stage 3, conscious competence? How long will it take?
You've entered the yawning chasm of stage 2.
Similarly, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that the unskilled lack the awareness to know just how bad they are - so they consistently and strongly overrate themselves in that skill. Conversely, the highly skilled underrate themselves. They know how much they have still to learn.
Morals of the story:
- If a harsh light has dawned and you now see that your work is terrible, you've moved up a stage of competence. Yes, it hurts.
- If you lack confidence in your work, you're in a better position to improve than someone who thinks their work is perfect.
- When I tear my hair out and swear never to write again, it secretly means I'm awesome. Really.