The Path To Expertise

Expertise requires going from "unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.”

You definitely just skimmed right through that quote, didn’t you? Caught ya! You’re probably thinking, "come on man, can I at least get an introduction first? don’t just drop a complicated quote on me like that...” Sorry, life’s unfair. No introduction for you. So here’s the quote again because I know you didn’t read it the first time.

Expertise requires going from "unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.”

But seriously, this is a very insightful quote so let’s break it down into it’s individual parts so we can understand it better. The path to expertise has 4 phases:

Phase 1: Unconscious incompetence is when you don’t know that you’re not good at something. Kids who pick up a basketball for the first time don’t know that they aren’t good at making a reverse pivot because they don’t even know what a reverse pivot is. Unconscious incompetence is the very beginning stage for everyone. 

Phase 2: Conscious incompetence is when you know that you’re not good at something. It’s the kid who sees a reverse pivot being made and recognizes that he can’t do it. He goes into the driveway to try it out and can’t learn it. It’s the recognition of something that he needs to work on.

Phase 3: Conscious competence is when you can do something but you have to focus on it to do it correctly. It’s the kid who’s learned the reverse pivot but must concentrate on the footwork and timing to execute it. He’s unable to survey the floor or think about how many timeouts the team has left as he reverse pivots.

Phase 4: Unconscious competence is when you can do something without thinking about it. it’s the kid who can jump stop and reverse pivot while still looking up and analyzing the defense. He can execute the reverse pivot unconsciously.


3 things to know about the path to expertise:

1) Everyone starts at the beginning.

2) You cannot skip steps.

3) You can be in different phases of the path to expertise in different areas of the game.

For example, you can be in phase 4 when dribbling in a straight line down the court but be in phase 2 when trying to execute a killer crossover.

You can be in phase 1 in reading the backside defensive coverages against a pick and roll and phase 3 in reading the defender in a 2 on 1 situation.


How do I transition from 1 phase to the next?

Going from phase 1 to 2: The best way to go from phase 1 to phase 2 is to watch the game intently. By watching and absorbing basketball you can begin to see the game in a more nuanced way. In the process, you’ll notice things you hadn’t seen before and that you aren’t yet able to execute.

Going from phase 2 to 3: This step takes self-awareness, humility, and a growth mindset. You first have to have the humility and self-awareness to recognize that you are bad at a certain skill. From there, you have to train that skill in order to become competent. This requires the willingness to make mistakes, look stupid, and fail repeatedly—all characteristics of the growth mindset.

Going from phase 3 to 4: The final step takes incredible persistence. It takes thousands of focused reps to gain the type of mastery that allows you to perform a skill unconsciously. This is the subject of Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning (one of my favorite books ever). As Waitzkin says, Mastery is about learning something so fully, to it’s core and essence that we can forget it completely. 

Once that happens, you can redirect all your attentional resources to what matters in the moment. Let’s use elite point guards as an example. 

The best point guards can handle the ball against pressure without devoting any attention to it. As a result, they can focus all their attention on the rest of the game: where the mismatches are, which of my teammates needs to touch the ball, how much time is left on the shot clock, what play should I run, how does their center defend ball screens etc. 

There’s a lot of variables to be aware of in the dynamic game of basketball, so the more of your skills that you can chunk into your unconscious ability the better.

The path to expertise is long and challenging, but it helps to have a framework for understanding the process. 

One more time just in case you forgot...

Expertise requires going from "unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.”