The four stages of learning anything

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

That’s Bert at left, demonstrating the four stages.

Steve speaking:)

New client today. Forty years old, married, named Tim.

I ask why he’s come.

“I’m about to get divorced,” he says, “and I don’t know why.”

Tim’s wife Tina has seen a lawyer and asked him to move out.

“Why does Tina want a divorce?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says again. “But we fight all the time.”

“What do you fight about?” I ask.

Tim offers a list:

~ Tina likes a warm bedroom at night. Tim prefers a cool one. So the couple sleeps with the AC on in summer and windows wide open in winter.

~ Tina is a gentle parent who doesn’t believe in yelling or spanking.  Tim calls himself a “firm disciplinarian” who yells often and spanks frequently.

~ Tina is a vegetarian. Tim loves meat, and insists it be served at every meal.  On pasta nights, he pouts.

~ Tina is close to her parents, whom Tim dislikes. So he refuses to let them visit when he is at home.  When on holidays and birthdays he is forced to entertain them, he pouts. 

~ Tina is a Democrat.  Tim is a Republican.  So each November Tim tries to browbeat Tina into voting for his candidates.  If she doesn’t, he pouts.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

“Tim,” I ask , “has anyone ever suggested that you may have a problem with control?”

“Control?” He looks at me like I’ve just spoken Martian.

This only confirms what his recitation has already suggested:

Tim is a Stage One guy.


We go through four stages in learning anything:

(1) Stage One is unconscious incompetence. That’s where we don’t know that we don’t know. Imagine a four-year-old sitting behind the steering wheel of Daddy’s car. He’s watched Daddy drive, so now he yanks the wheel left and right, peers over the dashboard, waves his hand out the window to signal turns. He thinks he’s driving. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

(2) Stage Two is conscious incompetence. That’s where we know that we don’t know. Imagine this same kid as a teenager. It’s his first day in the Driver Ed car. The instructor tells him to parallel park. A chill runs through his entire body. He knows that he doesn’t know.

(3) Stage Three is conscious competence. That’s where we know that we know. Flash forward to this same kid six months later. He’s just gotten his driver’s license. He gets behind the wheel, buckles up carefully, and drives down the street with a smile on his face. He knows that he knows.

(4) Stage Four is unconscious competence. That’s where we don’t know that we know. Flash forward, one last time, to this same kid at forty. He’s been driving for so long that now it barely engages his attention. He tools along the highway talking on his cell phone, fiddling with his radio, and worrying about the fight he just had with his wife. When he has to parallel park, he does it without thinking. He’s reached the stage where he doesn’t know that he knows.


What has all this to do with control?


When it comes to control, we’re all addicted.

And we all start off just like Tim.

We don’t know we’re addicted. 

We don’t know that we don’t know how not to control.

We control automatically, unconsciously and compulsively. 

And when our controlling causes problems, we don’t see it.  We find other explanations. 

So the first step we face, if we want to recover from this universal addiction, is the same one Tim faces if he wants to understand why he’s about to get divorced:

We must move from Stage One to Stage Two.

We must become aware that, most of the time, we really don’t know how not to be controlling.

6 responses to “The four stages of learning anything

  • Cheryse Durrant

    The interesting question is… why does it take some people longer than others to break through the stages?

    • fritzfreud

      Good question, Cheryse. If you’re referring to recovery from control addiction, I see it as much like that from any other addiction. Hitting bottom (the point where the pain of an addiction outweighs the fear of giving it up) seems a necessary first step for most control addicts. Then they need to identify themselves as such — i.e. admit to themselves and others that they have a problem with control — before they can work seriously at learning alternatives. Ongoing emotional support (e.g., in therapy and/or self-help meetings) is essential. And when relapse happens (as it always does), the recovering addict needs help in understanding and learning from that experience. There are other variables that affect how a recovery goes, but these four strike me as the most important.

  • john

    for some reason this one took alot of energy to understand I had to read it 2 times, is there such a thing as to much therapy? if there is I think Im there, meetings, group, therapy, other meetings I think I need a couple of days off, my head is going to explode

    • fritzfreud

      Yes, I think there is such a thing as too much therapy, and feeling like your head may explode is a pretty reliable symptom of it. Sounds like you need a break.

  • Sue B

    Where do I begin, first I need a little recorder so I can replay that message for the rest of my life. We all need little reminders through out this journey of life. Thank you Steve, some how you always help me back to reality.

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