Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Living the dream - how conscious are you of your own competence?

If you have a dream - everything is possible!

However, I'm of the opinion that you're most likely to succeed at achieving your goal if you know where you're coming from and where you're going to.

On this very historic day, I've tried to think of a topic which ties in to what we will see happening later today.

One of the things that struck me when reading about Barack Obama and his path to the Presidency is how inquisitive he was and how many questions he asked about how things worked. He set out to find out what he needed to know, he applied himself to tasks which would be useful to know how to do and he developed and practised the skills required to be successful at being the person he aimed to be. And it worked!

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama,
taken shortly before he assumes office.

Source: Change.gov / Pete Souza

Finding out and asking questions are an essential and integral part of the process of education and developing competence at what we do - and what we seek to do.

It also gives us a very useful perspective for evaluating the information and advice we get from others and deciding what to do with it.

In developing your knowledge and skills - how conscious are you of your own competence?

Here are some different ways of looking at competence. This analysis had a huge impact on me the first time I came across it. It really helped me to sort through what I knew and what I didn't - and how far I was from where I wanted to be.

  • Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence - not knowing what you don't know
  • Stage 2: Conscious incompetence - knowing what you don't know
  • Stage 3: Conscious competence - knowing what you know
  • Stage 4: Unconscious competence - not knowing what you know
Below I'm going to provide a brief explanation of explain what these terms mean and how they might be applied to art.

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence - not knowing what you don't know

This is the "blissful ignorance" stage. I find that the easiest way to remember this stage is that essentially it's about "I don't know what I don't know".

So, when I'm at this stage this means:
  • I'm naive - I get on with doing it my way, because I don't know any better
  • I lack both knowledge and skills - but haven't got a clue that this is where I'm at
  • I don't know or appreciate what the skills are to producing quality artwork
  • I'm not aware that a particular skill is relevant to producing art of a particular sort
  • I don't know that I have a skill deficit and that I need to learn about a particular process in order to be able to draw or paint in a particular way
  • I have no appreciation at all of how my particular skill level relates to those who are most skilled
In order to move to the next stage a development has to take place which can be prompted by what either the teacher or the student (or both) do next
  • Teacher perspective: Increase awareness of the skills used to be effective at producing artwork. Demonstrations of skills or abilities. Identify benefits of learning 'how to'.
  • Student perspective: Start to learn how much you don't know. Ask questions. Find mentors. Watch people do things. Identify benefits of learning a skill.
In a way this runs directly contradictory to the "5 easy stages" instruction books which only emphasise short cuts rather than defining the skills and competences required to make great art.

Interestingly this stage also creates artists, such as Alfred Wallis, whose work is typified as "naive art". Characteristics include objects being drawn without any sense of perspective and sized according to their importance to the artist's world.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence - knowing what you don't know

This is the "I know nothing" stage. This is progress! At least now that I know that I know nothing I can start to learn something!

When I'm at this stage - this is what it feels like:
  • I now have some awareness of the knowledge and skills which I need to know more about
  • I know that I need to find out more about how things work
  • I've tried drawing/painting/printing/whatever in (name the media or process) and find that I don't produce the results I see in pictures in books or exhibitions
  • I recognise my skills deficit and know there are skills that I need to learn
  • I begin to find out just how good some artists really are and realise I'm no expert!
  • I begin to appreciate just how big the gap is between where I am and where they are
  • I accept that my ability is very limited
  • I may not enjoy that I feel inadequate or unskilled relative to where I want to be - my confidence may take a knock
  • I know that I will improve my effectiveness if I engage in the learning process
Some prompts for making progress:
  • Teacher perspective: Support learning by students - accept lots of mistakes will be made. Engage their enthusiasm for learning. Provide coaching. Show them what's involved e.g. demonstrate what goes into creating an artwork - how it is designed and constructed and what it means as well as how it's painted. Highlight what artists need to learn to become competent and skilled at what they do. (i.e. it's not enough just to know how to handle a brush or mix colours). Emphasise the need to put in the time and the work.
  • Student perspective: Work out how far I am from where I want to be. Make a commitment to learn more. Identify some stages for learning more about what I need to know. Attend art classes and workshops. Read resources - in books and on the net. Discuss art with people who 'know'.
My guess is that a lot of hobby artists make it to this stage but many may not get any further.

My personal view is that there are some big potential risks associated with this particular stage - which can lead to students getting stuck and making no further progress.

Being aware of what you don't know and how much you need to find out can be daunting and really influence your mindset and approach to learning. It can lead to the eternal student - people who get stuck at the reading stage; people who go to workshops and watch the demonstration but who fail to engage with "doing".

Essentially you find out how things work by making things happen - or not! Being willing to endure feeling uncomfortable with what you produce enables you to practice getting better.

I think it also stumps some people who are in total awe of really good painters. They just can't start to learn because they've become more and more aware of just how good 'proper painters' are. For some of them, if they can't be the best then they don't want to try.

The other danger at this stage is becoming 'stuck' in the mindset of a particular teacher who fails to show you the very many different ways that people use media or approaches to making art.

Stage 3: Conscious competence - knowing what you know

I know what I know. I have knowledge and can use it. I have skills and can practice them. I am effective - but I'm not yet reached my full potential or the peak of performance.

When I'm at this stage - this is what it feels like:
  • I've acquired knowledge - I now know things about specific aspects of art and making art
  • I've acquired skills e.g. I can draw and I can paint in my chosen media
  • I still need to think about what I'm doing if I'm going to be effective.
  • I can achieve a reliable level of performance - however my competence levels can operate in fits and starts unless I make artwork on a regular basis
  • I can develop a body of work. I can create a series. I can make pictures for an exhibition.
  • Working steadily on producing output can be very draining because of the conscious level of effort involved
  • I know I still need to get much better
  • I know I need to put in the work in order to get better and refine my skills
More prompts for making progress
  • Teacher perspective: Be very competent at what I do in order to demonstrate to others. Be very knowledgeable about my practice and competent at explaining what I do - in order to transfer that understanding to others.
  • Student perspective: Make a commitment to becoming the best I can be. Practice, Practice Practice!!! Putting in the 10,000 hours (See Outstanding performance - a talent or 10,000 hours of practice?)
At this level, artists are able to get work into exhibitions and galleries and can sell their work for reasonable prices. However they may struggle if they seek to make their living from art with no other source of income. There's a still a way to go before they really begin to stand out from the crowd.

People will start to teach at this stage - but may be less effective as artists and teachers than those who manage to reach the next stage.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence - not knowing what you do know

This is the stage where everything seems easy - it's only taken three stages before this and an awful lot of hard work to get here!

This is when you can say you have achieved mastery and do not think about what you do. You've now reached your full potential, the peak of your performance and (probably) the peak of confidence in 'knowing' what you know - because it is an intrinsic part of you.

Here are the characteristics - described in the first person. How many of these are part of you?
  • Practising for many hours has helped me to develop a habit which is now ingrained - it's now 'second nature' (part of the unconscious part of my brain)
  • I can do things automatically and without thinking. There is no need for a conscious effort - my brain is engaged with the process but doesn't need to make me think about what I'm doing
  • This can make it difficult for me to explain to other people what I do
  • My performance is reliable and robust. So long as a I maintain an output then the quality levels will tend to remain pretty reliable.
  • I can multitask and do more than one thing at a time
  • I'm at the peak of fulfilling my abilities and potential - and my confidence
  • I start looking around for new challenges!
Prompts for consolidating on progress and maintaining mastery
  • Teacher perspective: Conduct and deliver a masterclass. Become a very effective teacher if able to articulate what mastery involves.
  • Student perspective: Continue to practice, practice, practice! Find new stimuli e.g. learn a new skill; seek out a new motif; practice reiteration within one motif.
I guess this is where we'd all like to be. I suspect we get here in stages so that some aspects of process become unconscious competences before others do. How this happens will partly depend on what we all focus on as we develop and make progress.

True mastery requires a well rounded ability, knowledge and skills.

Personally I think it's also very much associated with a talent for reinventing yourself from time to time - and Picasso is an artist who springs to mind in this regard. I think it probably comes from a commitment to personal development and a continued enthusism for learning and developing new skills.


How would you describe yourself? Are there any other characteristics for describing the path to being a successful artist?

Please comment below if you find this helpful and or have anything to add.

(PS I'm now off to go and watch the television on this very historic day and wonder in awe at Michelle Obama's ability to withstand the cold!)


Anonymous said...

This election was a triumph of thought, knowledge and a dedication to learning over ideology...

It's a new day!


Making A Mark said...

I forgot to post a link to a BBC video of an interview with Martin Luther King in which he predicts a black president

Dr King predicts a black president

Tina Mammoser said...

Ah my kind of stuff. :D But heck there's just so much I don't know! So can I have permission to do my next degree now please? (I'm strongly considering geology.)

Inauguration? What? Sorry, I was in the studio. Like we keep saying to our fellow artists - do, do, do. I'm waiting to see what Obama *does*. :)

Anonymous said...

I find it so interesting that you chose curiosity, learning and competence to write about on Obama's inauguration day. I appreciate your in depth look at the 4 stages of competence. I wrote about it as well on my blog (on 11/14/2007).

Yesterday I attended my plein air class with Camille Przedowek. She teaches an impressionist, colorist technique that takes years and years to learn, let alone master. She's been striving to master this way of seeing and painting for 25 years since her early studies with Henry Hensche. Yet she was telling those of us expressing frustration about how, as she continues to study with her teacher but that she's glad that she at least knows what she doesn't know.

Felicity Grace said...

Obama made a mistake, acknowledged it and didn't let it phase him, he just got on with it - that's a good example! I would stress the importance of 'practise, practise, practise' in phase 2 rather than phase 3 though. I'm at phase 2 with watercolours but when I was at the same stage with drawing, I didn't have a computer and 24 hour TV to compete with my time - or '5 easy steps' type books to make me feel inadequate!

Anonymous said...

When I taught graduate school courses to beginning teachers we talked about these stages of conpetence and added "Unconsciously talented". This individual is rare, and does not make a good teacher because they never had to struggle through the stages to learn-- They just have always had the skill and found it to be easy. Hence, sometimes our most brilliant people have been lousy instructors.

Anonymous said...

Well, looks like we're again on some kind of weird brain sync. Only I guess your brain works faster than mine ;-) I had a post in the works entitled, "I didn't know I didn't know", (no kidding) about the early stage of beginner work that almost all of us have found ourselves during the artist's journey. I needn't bother now though...Seems it's a common thread according to the responses so far, and you've presented it so well.

I think your thoughts are spot on. There IS a certain loveliness about the early "ignorance is bliss" stage. To my mind, if I knew how bad I was when I started I wouldn't have gone any further. LOL!! But of course we can't stay there if we want to advance to the next (and often painful) level.

I'm thinking that even at the "mastery" stage, one experiences plateaus. Working through them may be less plodding and more subtle because of the level of skill and ability acquired, but they probably still exist (I'll let you know for sure if I ever experience it!)

I am reading a little book right now called "Mastery" that speaks a lot to plateau-as-progress. The author, George Leonard, makes the interesting point that many in this modern culture have become addicted to the "climax" (the get rich quick idea, or as you put it, the "5 easy steps".) In doing so, plateaus are unappreciated and sometimes even viewed as failures. I guess this is why you can see so much discouragement and attrition at this stage of the artist journey.

According to the author, the master comes to appreciate the plateaus and recognise them for what they are...a valuable part of the process that provides the space and the impetus to begin anew; to advance and undertake new skills, new challenges. Ultimately they lead to developing new inspirations and ideas and better ways in which to express them. But it's definitely not a quick and easy path, to be sure.

And on that line of thought, I, for one, was inspired by the inauguration. I hope the President Obama can guide folks here in the U.S. can to take on some of that "mastery perspective." We're gonna need it--feels like as a country, we're more on a precipice than a plateau!

Grangry said...

Katherine, that's a LOADED question. Being CONSCIOUS of your own competence is so often interpreted as being CONFIDENT in your own competence and if you are a craftsman or an artist rather than a teacher, really I think that is the crux of the matter. It applies in your life, your relationships, your work and your art. Is it enough just to please yourself, or do you need the confirmation of others. One of the things I do is make fabric figures, dolls if you like. I'm happy with the way they look, but I'm constantly looking for other examples to compare the finish. Are mine good enough? I really don't know, so I strive to do better and I'm never really satisfied with what I produce, but perhaps I need more confidence in my own ability as a craftsman. I make coloured pencil paintings. Most times I get the result I wanted, usually I'm pleased with what I've produced, but should this be enough, or do I need the confirmation of others?

Rose Welty said...

I think that stage 2 is really a two parter. 2A being "knowing that you don't know." i.e. you know you aren't knowledgeable and you don't understand. From there it takes a while (hence the disillusionment and discouragement) to get to 2B. 2B being "knowing what you don't know." At 2B you can at least name what you need to know, you know a direction in which to move to learn. At 2A, you aren't sure even what it is you need to know. At 2B, you have a better idea of what you need to learn. I think 2B can be quite thrilling and make up for 2A. At least I hope so, I'm still in 2A :D.

vivien said...

being unconscious of your own incompetence is sadly as stage that some never move on from!

I'm always woefully concscious of mine!

Lindsay said...

This is a very clear sighted explaination. This can also happen at the start of every new "project" or series. Just in a slightly different way. It's not the skill so much but the approach to the material, the depth, the questioning one has to do when entering new subject matter.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post as always Katherine!

Anonymous said...

That was excellent. I'm going to print it out and sit with it for awhile. I'm not sure I know where I am, but it gives me a clear map to follow. Thank you so much for sharing that information.

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