Four Stages of Competence
How we develop competence and confidence
I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. But I’m also not the dullest. I am merely as sharp or dull as the average tool in the shed. Over time, most of us regress to the mean for any measure. That said, our sharpness or dullness is not a fixed state. Like most forces in nature, our competency follows a cycle. The learning cycle is four years in North American education systems—such as high school and college. During this cycle, our competence and confidence will reach highs and lows.
The Competence-Confidence Matrix
Like Pokémon having a three-part evolution, our competence and confidence also evolve in stages. Unlike Pokémon, this development has four stages: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior.
When we start something new—college, a career, a hobby—we are said to be “green.” Like a young sapling, our learning fibers are thin and pliable, not thick and sturdy like the branches of an aged oak. We are adaptable at this stage, ready to bend toward wherever there is light, unencumbered by past knowledge. During this innocuous stage, we might be timid because we know that we know little. That’s okay because we must start somewhere, and when that somewhere is zero, the only place to go is up.
Freshmen: low competence, low confidence.
We soon earn a sliver of success. If we’re learning to code, we feel elated after running a “hello world” program. If we take a 101-level course, we feel smart after our first A. If we learn to golf and hit a straight drive, we feel ready to take on the Masters. We think we’ve made tremendous progress, so our self-esteem explodes, and we gain confidence.
Welcome to the Sophomore stage. Dictionaries define “sophomoric” as “conceited and overconfident but poorly informed and immature.” In short, a Sophomore thinks they’re great, but they’re not.
Sophomores: low competence, high confidence.
Eventually, our sophomoric over-confidence gets us in trouble. A college student who earns good grades freshman year believes he doesn’t need to work as hard in sophomore year, so he parties more than he studies and his GPA plummets. An entry-level programmer releases code with minimal tests and feels confident about her speedy development, but then the code fails in production, and she’s neck-deep in retrospective meetings.
“Be humble or get humbled.”
We enter the Junior stage. We made a mistake, and a new opportunity presents itself. We can either:
Choose ignorance. We can deny reality and take on a victim mindset, believing that the world is broken and we have no control over these unjust outcomes.
Get humbled. We can accept that we caused this failure and take ownership of our destiny. We acknowledge that we aren’t as smart, strong, special, or skilled as we thought.
Something powerful happens if we choose the second path. We gain awareness of our shortcomings, which unlocks an understanding of what needs to improve—a sort of tactical enlightenment. Then, we can bow our heads and put in the work to gain competence.
An unfortunate side-effect is imposter syndrome. Based on our past behavior, we believe we aren’t good and worry that we’ll be “found out.” Some claim that imposter syndrome is self-sabotage, and we should ignore these feelings of inadequacy. But what if that inadequacy signaled we aren’t fulfilling our potential? If we could move forward despite self-doubt, imposter syndrome is merely a step toward developing competence.
Juniors: high competence, low confidence.
With genuine competence established, we begin a slower and more thoughtful road to sustained confidence. We complete a challenging course and earn an A-, launch well-tested code to solve a complex problem, or finish a marathon after months of training.
When we prove to ourselves that we are competent, we have earned our confidence. Then we can continue to learn without the peaks of arrogance and or valleys of despair.
Seniors: high competence, high confidence.
Back to Square One
Then the cycle repeats: we move from a senior in high school to a freshman in college. We become people managers at work and are back to square one—discovering how little we know.
We can be at different stages for different parts of our life. I’m a “senior” PM at work, a freshman at drawing, and, admittedly, a sophomore at writing.
Psychologists call this cognitive bias the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” Are we doomed to this turbulent cycle? Like most cognitive biases, we will follow the default path without self-awareness.
That arrogant sophomoric phase gives us the confidence to act, fail, and get humbled—all vital steps on the road to sustained confidence. Awareness of the cycle can help us dampen the damage of over-confidence.