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“I Have a Problem – I Think I Suck”

That is what one of my advanced students said to me recently. It wasn’t an offhand comment. It was a heartfelt cry for help. It wasn’t the first time I have dealt with this issue, and most certainly won’t be the last. However, I am frequently surprised by the individual who admits to contending with this sense of self-deprecation. Their skills are nearly always far better than they believe. They, however, genuinely believe they suck. I responded to this students’ expression of dismay as I usually do. I gave him my usual coaching on the nature of training and skill development. Here are the most salient points in abbreviated form.

I often start with the four stages of development in any skill. When you begin to investigate something new the first stage of development can be called Unconscious Incompetence. In other words, you don’t yet know what (or how much) you don’t know. This stage is fraught with peril depending on your disposition. This could range from overestimating your newfound skill (and every teachers favorite, sensei syndrome) to feeling completely overwhelmed. Many people do not survive this phase for many reasons.

If you do make it, you will come face to face with phase two: Conscious Incompetence. This is when it begins to become clear to you what, and how much, you don’t know. This is the next major exit gate. If you make your peace with the fact that your new endeavor is going to require effort, discipline, and perseverance, you may well make it to phase three: Conscious Competence. At this stage you are in fact significantly skillful when you are tuned in and working hard at it. This is a completely respectable stage of accomplishment. This is where most people will top out.

The final phase is reserved for those rare individuals who live, eat, breathe, think, and dream their chosen endeavor for many, many years. These are the fanatics (meant as a compliment). They simply can’t not do what they are doing. This is the final phase of transcendence. Unconscious Competence. Mastery. This is when, whatever it is, is no longer something you do, it is something you are. It becomes you, and you become it. It does you.

While any event, like a good test or a good demo, is certainly an indication of progress, the key to continued growth is to understand the process. Any sudden evidence of progress, like an advance in rank, is predictably fairly closely followed by a sense of backsliding. For those who are committed to their training and do not let themselves get derailed by this, there then follows a period of time feeling like you have stalled out. Some call this a plateau. The secret is to realize that this period on the so-called plateau is actually where the skill improvement is taking place. This is why the student who does not train regularly and then crams for a test is typically, either overtly or privately, not genuinely confident in, nor satisfied with their skills.

There really is no other way to move through these stages without putting in the time and doing the work of collecting experiences. I often call this “dirt time.” The student who is in a hurry is problematic to themselves and their teacher. I frequently use the analogy of childbirth here. This beautiful and noble task that rests entirely on the shoulders of women comes with enormous challenges. Though I am sure many women wish there was, there simply is no three month baby. There is no short cut. A mother must experience the whole process, and be mindful as she moves through it.

If you are passing through your own period of self-doubt, or you are a teacher helping your students learn to persevere, I hope you find this information useful. A healthy questioning of skill development is an important component to progress. This questioning can result in failure to realize that it is an honest desire to improve that can blind someone to their actual progress. It is important to balance the commitment to improving with a periodic glance in the rearview mirror. With all the technology now available this is pretty easily done. Not only can those old videos provide proof of progress, they can often supply a good laugh.

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