Unconsciously Competent

a glacier river flowing into the blue ocean

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
| Alan Wilson Watts

Learning a craft means patiently building competence. Mastering a craft means being able to apply it intuitively. In this blog article, I look at different stages of learning to build competence. In particular, I look at the role of awareness and consciousness. At the end of the article, I give ideas on how we can train our intuition.


Usually, we are referring to competence as a state of having sufficient knowledge, skills, strengths, or the judgmental courage to achieve a different anticipated level in life. Some of these levels might be needs, others conveniences. In photography, there are many different dimensions of competence involved:

  • Furthermore, we need a visual competence that enables us to see things that others may not see, to react to external influences, and to bring different objects in a picture into a meaningful relationship with each other through a particular standing point.
  • It takes technical competence to be able to operate a camera, take a photo, export it to a computer and edit it there. The higher this competence, the more elaborate we can make the process, the more different techniques we can use, and the more we can vary the anticipated result.
  • In addition, an aesthetic competence may be required of us in order to shape the images we make into a certain formal language and to bring colors into harmony with the form.
  • A theoretical or conceptual competence is helpful to place the image in a larger context, if necessary, to open questions and communicate an intended message.

These are just four examples of different competencies that we develop in the course of our artistic work, but we can easily find many more.


In this post, I’d like to use the word consciousness to describe a state of our personal awareness. Without going further into the Theory of Mind, I refer to self-consciousness in the sense of being aware that we are aware. For a wonderful starting point into the definition and understanding of Consciousness, I’d like to recommend you have a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Sometimes, we do things that we are aware of. Sometimes, we don’t. This is, what I’d like to talk about in the following.

The Four Stages of Competence

In 1969, the management trainer Martin M. Broadwell published a short article about the four levels of teaching. Later on, the ideas have been transferred into levels of learning by many others, for example, Abraham Maslow. In his article, Broadwell described the following four stages of learning that I’d like to apply to learning photography:

  • Unconscious incompetence: This is the very first stage of learning, in which we are not aware of how incompetent we are. We are not even aware of the deficit and how important that deficit might be to us. Before we even started looking at photography, so we didn’t have any knowledge of photography either, we weren’t aware that photography might be meaningful to us (what if we never properly interpreted the signals that life gives us and never paid attention to them?). To enter into a learning process, we need to recognize the value of photography for us. These are usually critical events that have a great impact on our lives. Maybe it’s a parent introducing us to photography, a visit to a museum, or reading a particular book. Once we understand the value of photography to us, we are ready to move to the second level.
  • Consciousness incompetence: We quickly realize how inept we actually are at this new discipline of photography. Recognizing the importance and our inability in this important direction are crucial to our willingness to learn, to make mistakes, and progress in that specific discipline or skill.
  • Consciousness competence: Because we feel an inner drive to learn something that is important to us, we learn. It does not seem like work to us. No, we gladly invest every spare second of our time to learn these new skills and tap into this discipline. We get better. We understand better what we need to do to achieve certain anticipated goals. Because we feel a passion, we bring a necessary concentration that puts us in the flow of learning. We become more competent and aware. Often we assume that this means we have almost reached the final goal. However, it still requires the fourth stage to truly become a master in the subject.
  • Unconscious competence: The more we use our skills in the discipline that is so important to us, the easier it will come off. The more often we take photographs, the easier it is for us to interpret a scene and use technical settings to shape it according to our intent. We don’t have to think about it any longer because it just comes naturally to us. At this stage, we may also be able to teach and instruct others in these skills. However, reaching this final level of competence may take many years.

What do these four levels of competence teach us? That we may want to invest time to train our intuition.

Figure 1: The Four Levels of Competence (own illustration)


When we are unconsciously incompetent, we have the wrong intuition, We may even feel that we cannot trust ourselves. When we however become consciously incompetent, we are starting to become aware, analyze our capabilities correctly, and learn to cope with the deficit. Through multiple, continuous repetition of the same patterns, but also by applying those in different situations, we build up our intuition.

How can we build this intuition and reach a stage where artistic, creative work comes easily to us? On the one hand, through active practice. On the other hand, through constant reflection on what we do and why we do it. But also through different stimuli to which we expose ourselves. I believe that everything we actively do with our hands as well as everything we actively take in through our senses builds our intuition. Therefore, we should enjoy cooking food, crafting, fixing things, drawing with our children, making music, or writing poetry. We can further observe all forms of things in our daily lives with pleasure and enjoy smelling, hearing, tasting, or feeling with much presence.

Ultimately, all this will sharpen our senses and mature us into a better, and more complete artist. Have fun learning, exploring, and marveling.


Broadwell, Martin M. (1969): “Teaching for learning (XVI)”, in: The Gospel Guardian, Vol 20, Number 41, pages 1-3a, February 20, 1969.
Van Gulick, Robert (2014): Consciousness, in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness.