The 4 Stages of Mastery That Everyone Must Know About

self improvement

There is no such thing as a free lunch and neither is there such a thing as becoming a master at something overnight. Even if you have incredible natural raw talent and can learn something ten times faster than anyone else, without hours, days and months of practice and honing your skills, you will not become a master at your chosen art/craft/skill.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that an initial success means that they are really good at something. I have had the same problem in the past, an egotistical flair or the arrogance of thinking I could be better at something than someone who has been doing it for years while I have only done it for a few weeks. Foolish youth I guess.

I have learnt from my mistakes though and I have some to the conclusion that it takes 2-4 years to get a good basic understanding about something (whatever that something is, I think that the principle applies to pretty much every skill or craft). After those first 2-4 years it has taken you to get a good basic understanding, its going to take you another 2-4 years before you can consider yourself advanced. When you are at this advanced level you are still far from being a master. This can take anything from 4-15 years after you reach the advanced stage, and even a master will always be open to learning more.

I think that becoming a master at anything can be divided into 4 stages. ( I heard about these 4 stages long ago. I can’t remember the source, but it made a lasting impression on me.)

The 4 Stages Of Mastery

Unconscious Incompetence

This is the stage that many people live in perpetually. The are unaware that they actually suck at a lot of things even though they think that they are doing alright. This is the worst and most dangerous stage to be in. It is the stage where initial successes cause the egotistical and arrogant thinking of superiority and mastery while in reality the person doesn’t know the first thing about what he is doing.

Conscious Incompetence

When a person reaches the stage of conscious incompetence they are making good progess. They realize that they are not good at whatever they are doing and thus do not pretend to know what they are doing. This results in two things:

Either they accept their incompetence,outsource the task and they stop attempting to get better at whatever it is they are incompetent at or they are inspired to learn and get their hands on any resource that is going to get them to the next stage of conscious competence.

Conscious Competence

This is the stage where the seeds of a person’s hard labor starts to bear fruit. They may have spent weeks, months or years studying, learning and practising their skills and finally have come to a stage where they are actually pretty good at what they do. They are far from being the best in their field but they have some good authority and are a lot further than the majority of people who are still starting out.

Unconscious Competence

This is the stage before mastery. Once the unconscious competence stage of a skill/art/craft is reached it is a matter of time before that person becomes a master at what they do. To reach this stage usually takes a couple of years.

A Practical Example of The 4 Stages of Mastery

An example of how these 4 stages that lead up to mastery apply to the real world would be driving a car. I think this is something that everyone can relate to.

Initially you are at the stange of unconscious incompetence. You have sat next to people who drive you around for 16 years and it seems so effortless and easy. You think that it cannot be hard to drive and in fact you are pretty confident that if you were to get behind the wheel that you could get from A to B in one piece.

After attempting to get behind the wheel (with or without permission), you realize it is not so easy. You may stall a couple of times or crash into something. This is when you become aware of the fact that you actually suck at driving and you are going to take steps to become better. You are now at the stage of unconscious incompetence.

After taking lessons, reading books and lots of practise you finally become better at driving and are ready to drive on the public road. Everything still feels a little uneasy and you really need to focus on every action you do while driving (accellerator,break,clutch,shift gears). You are now at the stage of conscious competence.

As you continue to drive and spend more time behind the wheel you begin to feel more comfortable with the action of driving. You start to give less active focus on things like shifting gears, accelerating, indicating and breaking because these actions have started to become a habit. In other words, you automatically do them without thinking about it. This is the stage where you have good driving skills and you don’t need to focus actively on the mechanical actions of your skills. You are now at the stage of unconscious competence.

However, you are still far from mastery. You do not yet have the neccessary reaction ability and experience to be a true master and practice your skill under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. This takes many years, but day by day you grow towards mastery once you have obtained the level of conscious competence.

This is also the exact reason why black belt karate experts can kick your butt in a dojo under simulated circumstances, but when it comes to a real street fight they are often numb with fear and immobilised by the adrenaline. While they have obtained unconscious competence in an environment they are comfortable with, they are not yet masters who can apply their skill perfectly under any circumstance or condition.

The 10000 Hour Rule

The emerging scientific picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In countless studies of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and many other professions, the number of 10000 hours comes up again and again.

Now how long is a period of ten thousand hours? It equates to around 3 hours of practice a day (or twenty hours a week) of practice for ten years. There are also people who never reach true mastery in spite of their 10000 hours, which is not really explainable yet. However, no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It appears that it takes our brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

If you are interested in finding out more about the 10000 hour rule then you should get a copy of ‘Outliers- Malcom Gladwell’.

Parting Words

I hope that I have broken the concept of mastery of a skill down into very clear stages that you are able to understand and identify with. You should be able to take any skill or any area of your life and fit it somewhere into one of the 4 stages of mastery, and now it may just be easier for you to take appropriate action to where you want to be.

Some words of wisdom that I want to leave with you are that it takes many months and years to truly become good and many more to become a master at anything you do. If things go tough and you get knocked down many times without seeing much progress, don’t give up. Anyone who is truly good at something has gone through this entire process and has had their share of setbacks and failures. If you continue to work hard, practice, learn and not give up then the rewards of your efforts will be great.

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  • Kevin Incorvia

    I’ve heard my dad say these 4 stages a million times. I guess that makes me a master of them now huh :)
    .-= Kevin Incorvia´s last blog ..Why I didn’t watch the Oscars =-.

  • Sid Savara


    I read about these 4 stages before too, and they similarly made a lasting impact on me. We actually often talk about this in software development too – and the unconscious incompetent are the most dangerous software developers to have around

    They break software programs, but don’t realize they are doing it ;). At least if you’re consciously incompetent, you’ll make an effort to limit the damage ;)
    .-= Sid Savara´s last blog ..7 Common Procrastination Excuses =-.

    • Diggy

      Haha, yeah so true man. Conscious incompetent are dangerous people, especially if you put them on the road behind the wheel of a fast car!

  • Nate

    What a fantastic post. I can really relate to this. While playing basketball, all the way from 1st grade league to the college level these steps of mastery have been really evident. As an athlete, I think the most important state might be conscious incompetence. It’s that point where you realize, “I’m not the best and know everything,” and take the time to listen to coaches and apply what they tell you. Great post, Diggy. Hope all is well.
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..holy crap it’s been a while =-.

    • Diggy

      Heya Nate!

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving an awesome comment! I hope things are going well with you and your business? What’s happened to your blog?

  • Yavor

    Great topic D-man! It reminds me of the famous Bruce Lee quote:

    “Before I learned martial arts, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. [unconscious incompetence]

    “When I studied martial arts, a punch was no longer just a punch and a kick was no longer just a kick. [conscious incompetence, conscious competence]

    “Now I understand martial arts, and a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.” [unconscious competence]

    This applies to everything – sports, music, etc..

    .-= Yavor´s last blog ..Mark McManus Interview, The Muscle Hacker Shares His Wisdom On Building Muscle And Carving Out A Six Pack =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Yavor!
      Long time man! Good to hear that things are still good with you :)

      Awesome martial arts analogy. A lot of the time our ‘treasures’ or ‘mastery’ is already within us or we have it already, we just need to go through a massive journey to realize and understand that we had it within us all along. We need to awaken the inner master so to speak. This takes time, practice, experience and perseverance.


  • Jonny

    Stage 5: Unconscious Out Cold.
    .-= Jonny

  • Rog42

    Hey Diggy,

    Great post, and great comments from your readers. I have a couple of thoughts:
    1. “Outliers” is a great book, and crystallised what I’ve been thinking for some time. In it Malcolm points out that true mastery is a combination of many, many factors – fate/luck (being born at the right time), focussed practice (10k hrs), family heritage & opportunity, and believe it or not, culture. So I think it’s naive to believe that just practicing 10k hrs without all of the above will lead to mastery.

    2. The mastery cycle is clear, however, unconscious competence doesn’t signify mastery. You intimate this with your karate example. I’d like to discuss how one moves from UC to Mastery. My example will be driving again. The difference between Michael Schumaker and the other 3 Billion males on the planet that believe they are master drivers, is his considered return to conscious competence with feedback.
    So you can drive unconsciously, navigate, talk on the mobile, listen to the radio. Chances are you can’t remember how many times you changed gears on the way to work, or how many turns you took, let alone the approach and exit speeds on those turns. Michael can do this too, but what he does is CONSCIOUSLY consider every corner, and every parameter of every corner on a track, and he gets constant immediate feedback on his (practice &) performance. Then he does that, consciously 8 hours per day, for years.

    So my point here, return to conscious competence. Think about each component of each skill, and get feedback. Then measure, change, practice. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    3. It is imperative to have a coach/mentor. In all of the great professions, from Rhetoric in ancient Greece, Masonry in the Middle Ages, Law, Accounting, Medicine, to Olympic athletes today there is the concept of a mentor, coach, discipler, Senior partner. You need someone who has:
    a) Achieved mastery – so they know the path
    b) Can give you skills component feedback to show you the one small thing to change in a complex task
    c) Cares about you, and you achieving mastery. It’s not enough trying to copy someone great (although that’s good) because you need to know the hidden subtleties and seemingly unconscious variables, and only someone who cares (Miaggi in “Karate Kid”) will take the time to give you that. Someone who cares enough not just to tell you you suck (many will do that) but to tell you WHY you suck, and WHAT specific things to do to fix it. Rare individual indeed.

    4) Finally, you need a student yourself. In surgery there’s a concept of: “See it, do it, teach it.” before you’re qualified for a procedure. It’s great rule because in teaching you have to break a task down to it’s components so you can give feedback to someone else. It really embeds the skill. It also means you have to care enough about someone to share those hidden subtleties, and seemingly unconscious variables.

    Having said all of that, I do believe that if a human can do something, any human can. This is the basic premise of NLP.

    No, we may not all have the opportunity, coach, time, and cultural heritage to become Olympic Gold Skiers, or Neuro-surgeons, but with the right focus, feedback, and practice we can all learn to ski really well, or become a surgeon.

    Thanks for this. If it’s professional skills, particularly in consulting or managing in the IT industry, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and understand your needs at

    .-= Rog42´s last blog ..Community Cam: Google Wave =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Rog,
      Thanks for the awesome comment, I really appreciate it!

      1 – I agree that background, education and luck do play a part in mastery, but I believe that anybody can achieve it if they set their mind to it and if they are truly passionate about what they are doing.

      2 – Agreed, unconscious competence is the stage where you are pretty good at something, better than most. However, you are still alcking the refinement and experience (which can still take years to perfect) to become a true master at something.

      3 – Mentors are indeed a very big part of your learning curve. If you have a really good one who cares about you and your progress, you can achieve much better results much faster.

      4 – I hadn’t really though about that as being part of the process of mastery, but it is true that by teaching someone an art you have to be very good at it yourself, and you learn through teaching.

      Everyone is good at something, but not everyone needs to do what others are doing.I believe in doing what you love and becoming really good at that thing.
      I will stop by your site soon, right now it’s off to enjoy the weekend :)

      Have a good one Sir!

  • Kim

    Hi Diggy,

    Another way to look at 10000 hours would be to see where you’ve spent that much time in your life. For example, have you played your guitar that many hours for fun? If so, you could explore the possibility of performing or teaching professionally for further fulfillment.

    I agree with your comment about a mentor. I wish I had someone nearby like Glen to actually ‘show me how’ in person. My learning curve would change and I could better balance this w/other aspects in my work — like being a mentor in areas where I’m experienced ;)

    Take Care,

    • Diggy

      Heya Kim!

      Awesome to hear from you! I agree, that is one way of finding out what you’re passionate about, and I think that when you are passionate about something, you have no problem putting in the hours, months and years to become really good at it. Like I said earlier, the journey is the destination. The mere fact that you can spend so much time with whatever you are doing is the reward. It is not about the money or the fame or the mastery, it is about your love for it.

      I wouldn’t say that I’m as good as Glen, but if you ever want any help or wanna chat about your blog, feel free to send me an email or ask me for my Skype and I’ll be happy to help out where I can :)

  • Vincent

    Hi Diggy,

    I believe mastery is something we should all aim for. Why dwell in mediocrity when we are able to become master at something?

    The 10,000 hour rule probably puts people off. But as what you had said, if someone is able to put in just 3 hours per day consistently for around 9 years, he or she will definitely get there.

    I’m gonna paraphrase Glen’s words again.

    “Time is going to pass anyway, why not do something valuable during that time.”

    .-= Vincent´s last blog ..Do You Know The Key To Life? – Use This Knowledge To Help You Excel In Life =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Vincent!

      I totally agree with you, 10000 hours to master something is a long time. Yet I believe that you shouldn’t do something just because you want to be a master at it, because if that is your mindset you will likely give up before you reach 5000 hours!

      I believe you should do something because you are passionate about it, because you love doing it and because you would actually do it in your free time or go out of your way to do it. That is the mindset that will allow you to put in 10000 hours and truly become a master at something.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Diggy.

    That car driving example is a cool way to present the 4 stages. I can see each one of them there due to the example.

    The process is pretty interesting. We first don’t know what we don’t know, and then know what we don’t know, and then know what we got to know, and then have what we got to know in our knowledge base. That is my paraphrasing of it.

    I think I will be remembering this set of steps.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Empowering Thoughts And Fearful Thoughts =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Armen!

      Haha, yeah you are right, that is pretty much how it goes. I have actually gone through these phases in certain things. Looking back I recognize my unconscious incompetence in some areas where I thought I was actually pretty good at it :P

  • Srinivas Rao


    Driving is a perfect example. I wrote a similar post to this just yesterday where I broke down skills into 4 phases: practice, progress, peaks, and plateaus. There’s so many things that eventually become unconscious incompetence. When I surf now, I don’t think about how to pop up. I’ve just done it so many times that it’s unconscious. Good stuff man.

    • Diggy

      Hey Srinivas!
      I read your post and it’s pretty cool :)

      I agree with the surfing thing, when I first learned to wake-board i though it would be easy. I spent 3 days falling in the water before I could stand up! Now Standing up is automatic, but I am still far from a master at it :)

  • Oscar – freestyle mind

    Great post Diggy. We can use those steps to analyze our ignorance by simply asking what we thinks we know :D
    .-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..10,000 Euros Month – February Update =-.

    • Diggy

      Cheers Oscar!

  • Danny Cooper

    I think if the 10,000 hour rule was more well known a lot of people wouldn’t even begin some activities!
    .-= Danny Cooper´s last blog =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Danny!
      Yeah, but you shouldn’t want to become a master at something for the reward or the fame, the reward is the fact that you get to spend so much time doing the thing you want to become a master at. The journey IS the destination :)

      • Danny Cooper

        I was quite vague there, what I meant to say is people are very fickle with their activities online. One week someone can be a designer, the next a developer and then a blogger!

        If people understood how long it actually takes to achieve mastery they might stick with one thing longer.
        .-= Danny Cooper´s last blog =-.

  • Dave @ 30 Days At A Time

    On the 10,000 hour rule:

    First, the rule applies to people who want to attain a level of mastery. You can go from rank beginner to very very good in much less time. I may never be Michael Phelps, but I spent a lot less than 10,000 hours swimming before finishing 2nd at nationals a few years ago.

    Second, as Gladwell says in “Outliers” the time committment isn’t the only factor. Most of those hours need to be spent practicing basics to really achieve mastery.

    Finally, I would argue that by focusing on the fundamentals of an activity and ignoring the frills (for example, dribbling and shooting drills in basketball with no dunking or games of HORSE) one could achieve mastery in less time.

    • Diggy

      Hey Dave!

      Agreed, you can indeed become pretty good at something in far less time. I would not consider swimming as something that you can become a master at really. I was referring more to an art, a craft or a skill like martial arts. Although you can become rather good at something quickly, a true master will always have the advantage of experience and this often makes him superior in the end.

      I agree that you need to take action and practice, theory will only take you so far. For the rest you have to do, make mistakes and learn from them.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your view :)

  • Haider

    Hi Diggy,

    Thanks for the post.

    I heard about the 4 stages of learning from several sources, but it stuck with me the first time I heard it (according to Wikipedia, it’s Abraham Maslow who defined the stages).

    I think it’s important to acknowledge the time it takes to develop mastery in any craft, but to also realize that time alone doesn’t guarantee mastery. You can spend 20 years in a profession without truly understanding its underlying principles, or be able to come up with your own ideas in your field.

    Just because others have spent more time in a profession doesn’t mean they’ll always be better than you in that profession.

    You can cut down on the time and effort it takes to develop mastery by approaching the craft with the right mindset and being observant about what works and what doesn’t.
    .-= Haider´s last blog ..The Gold-Plated Rule =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Haider!

      You’re welcome, thanks for the comment! :)

      I totally agree with you, putting in the time is not a guarantee to become a master at something. However, if you are passionate about what you do and you really want to put in the time and push yourself to learn, you will become a master over time. I’m sure there are people who can learn in 1 year what others learn in 5 or 10 years, but it still takes time, effort and passion to become really good at something!

  • Hans Hageman

    Having the right mentor is incredibly important on this journey to mastery. The desire for immediate gratification makes it harder to impart the intrinsic benefits of mastery to young people. George Leonard’s book, “Mastery” is a good short read.
    .-= Hans Hageman´s last blog ..The Absence Of Men From Our Churches =-.

    • Diggy

      Heya Hans!

      A mentor can indeed make a very big difference. Take my blog for example, even though I had some help from a good blogger, I still had to figure most of the stuff out myself which took me nearly 18 months. That time might have been halved if I had someone constantly working with me and pointing out my mistakes :)

  • Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot

    Great article and very interesting thoughts. What I find interesting is that the learning and perfecting stages (conscious incompetance and competance) are often the most interesting. The last stage can often get boring. Video games are a prime example. Once the challenge is over the fun is gone.

    We’ve got to keep learning more and more stuff to keep our minds active and engaged and make life fun. It’s great to master skills but always keep learning more! I am:)

    Thanks Diggy.

    • Diggy

      Heya Annabel!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      I have noticed that too, once someone is realatively good at something, they think they are good enough and there is no more need to learn. The difference between someone who is good and someone who is a true master at something is a difference of many more years of experience.

  • Bud Hennekes

    Nice post as always man. Mastery is something that always fascinates me because it doesn’t happen over night like you said. I love reading about the best people in each niche because it reaffirms that you HAVE TO PUT IN THE WORK…

    Like they say overnight success takes 10 years… ;)

    I love Outliers by the way. Keep it up dude. Only 4 or 5 more years to go. :)

    • Diggy

      Heya Bud!
      Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, in 4-5 years UpgradeReality will be among the top blogs in the self improvement/ personal development niche :)

  • Hulbert

    Nice post Diggy. I agree that when we start out, it’s easy to become overconfident and tell ourselves that we can do it. But saying something is not the remotely the same as actually doing it.

    I like your example of driving as I kind of felt that way when I first started. I ended up failing the driving test the 1st time. I woke up, become more prepared, and passed it again the 2nd time but with maximum mistakes. :)

    The point is regardless of how good we may think we are, we will never reach true mastery unless we spend hours and hours practicing and making our skill better.
    .-= Hulbert´s last blog ..Jay Leno and Nice =-.

    • Diggy

      Hey Hulbert!

      Congratulations for being the first one to comment :P

      Yeah, I have experienced that many times. Sometimes it looks so easy to do something, and we get pretty confident or arrogant that we could do it very well. Then when we go out there and try, we totally suck at it. I also failed my driving license the first time, I reversed into a pole with alley-docking. Haha, I was such a noob at driving back then!