Warning: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Do you ever have a project running along and feel like you have it all under control, then suddenly something comes up and completely derails it?

Have you ever called tech support over a problem which you have worked on for hours and hours if not days and the tech solves it for you in a couple minutes by telling you to do a simple step you hadn’t thought of?

Are you scared to start something because you don’t know what to do and fear failure?

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. I spent a number of years in the military and we used the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know” always to remind us that there were things about the situation which we didn’t know. Really though, this has a much deeper meaning.

The idea is that there are different levels of understanding. You have to have at least an idea of where you are with a particular subject. Otherwise you will be hit by something unexpected or end up spinning your wheels on a subject where you really don’t know much about.

The different levels of understanding are:

· Unconscious Incompetence

· Conscious Incompetence

· Conscious Competence

· Unconscious Competence

In the first two questions, I asked at the beginning of the post, you are operating in unconscious incompetence. For the project, you didn’t know about the outside factor that was going to wreck your project. With the tech issue, you simply didn’t know about the simple solution to the issue you were having that the tech support person had seen hundreds of times before.

Besides wasting your time, the greatest danger from unconscious incompetence is that you don’t understand all of the risks involved with something; just like a child doesn’t realize that a hot stove will burn.

Conscious Incompetence

With conscious incompetence, we move to the place where we realize we don’t know much about the subject matter. This is also the stage where self-doubt creeps in. This can range from learning to drive a car to starting a new job to getting married.

This is where the person who is frozen by doubt and/or indecision is stuck at. The key to moving past conscious incompetence is realizing that everyone is at this point sometime in their life with everything they do. Don’t let the lack of knowledge lead you to failing to start or quitting. You will make mistakes. It’s all part of the learning process.

Conscious incompetence isn’t all bad. By realizing you don’t have a good grasp of a subject you will save yourself time by asking for help. If I haven’t encountered a situation before, I will reach out to my network of friends and acquaintances to see if they have and if they have a solution.

Conscious Competence

Conscious competence is where you have a reasonable mastery of the task. You can perform it if you remain focused and on task. A good example of this is a teenager who has been driving for a year or so. Most teenagers once they get their driver’s license feel that they have complete mastery of driving. However if they get distracted by a passenger, texting, or something they haven’t experienced before the results can be deadly.

The greatest danger of conscious competence is complacency. You haven’t reached mastery and need to continue on with practice and gaining additional knowledge.

Back to my military days, another saying was “as you train, you will fight.” Under the stress of battle, you don’t have the power to concentrate on a particular task. It has to be automatic. This automatic reaction comes from:

Unconscious Competence

Unconscious competence is the highest level of understanding. You know it without even thinking about it. You can perform the skill (at this point, it can be called a skill) with ease even under pressure. You might be driving and have an animal run out in the road in front of you. Automatically you check your mirrors for other cars. At the same time, your foot starts gently braking. Your mind taking all of the factors into consideration has you swerve to the left without slamming on the brakes and you drive on with you and the animal unharmed. All this happened in a second or two. With conscious competence, you would have had to think of each of the steps and it would have taken much longer to react.

This level of performance has also been called muscle memory. Your muscles and nerve connections trained by hours of repetitive movement will automatically move in coordinated movement. This is how world class tennis players can serve consistently and accurately. This is how when I was in the military was able to shoot on the move extremely accurately.

Unconscious competence takes dedication. Once it is reached, it is beauty in motion.

Everything is Unknown…Until You Know It

The key to all this is to understand you are always starting out from a position of unconscious incompetence. Slowly you will find yourself in conscious incompetence. Move past the self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. Work at being better until you reach the point of mastery where it just feels right.

Are you at a place in your life that you just realized you were operating in unconscious incompetence or is there something that you want to develop to a point of unconscious competence? Let us know in the comments.

Former Green Beret Mike Martel is the founder of AchieveTheGreenBeret.com and author of Get Er Done – The Green Beret Guide to Productivity. Mike focuses on helping individuals, entrepreneurs, and small businesses get results and improve productivity. For more information, click here.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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