Conscious Incompetence (and why it’s your friend)

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by Katy Schutte


Over years of teaching, I have begun to notice that many students at one point or another appear to have a crisis of confidence and dips in their skill sets.  There seems to be an ongoing cycle that starts with enthusiasm, becomes more of a serious work ethic and then turns into a mini freak-out.  I have always advised these students – based on observation – that a dip in confidence seems to come along at the same time or just before a big jump in skills.  I had no evidence or explanation for this apart from my own observations.  Until now.

I was working in Chantilly, France recently, coaching improvisational thinking with leaders and was struck by something one of the other coaches mentioned.  If you work in the corporate world, this is probably not news to you, but it really lit up a light bulb for me.  There is a scale that runs like this:
Unconscious incompetence
Conscious incompetence
Conscious competence
Unconscious competence

So: we don’t know that we can’t do something, then we know we aren’t doing it right, so we learn to do it, then we forget that we’re even doing it.

For me, these are very clear levels within our improvisational learning.  The most important of which is conscious incompetence.

When you are a total beginner in improv, you can often hugely enjoy performing; there are no nerves, no stress, you know you can do whatever you want and there’s nothing important riding on it.  You perform, you get LAUGHS – which is amazing – and then you’re done.  Fun.  After a while, you realise that you are maybe hitting on similar characters and gags because you know they work and because they feel easy and comfortable.  You begin to realise that there’s more to improv.  Where is the initial spark you had, why has it gotten harder?  There is more to learn.   You look at the people around you and see that they have skills you don’t, or that you’re not as good at.  So you work on those skills.  You increase your range, you take more risks, you are starting to enjoy the work again.  You get a lot better, then it’s easy, then you are slightly disconnected.  You’re maybe the best person in your company and you start to feel frustrated that others can’t keep up, or that the beginners class is too easy for you.  So you are consciously competent.  You join a more advanced class and really enjoy the scenes, they are rich, you are all listening to each other and the audience likes your shows.  You believe that this is the norm.  You are no longer stressing about your skill level because it is comfortable.  You have forgotten your struggle.  You are unconsciously competent.  You are GOOD.

Oh wait, another group came to town.  How the hell are they doing the improv they are doing?  What is long-form?  Is that monologue genuinely from real life?  Their physicality is incredible.  They sing!  Then here we go again.  Alexis Gallagher always maintains that it is best to be the second worst person in a company.  I think that’s a nice way to aspire to good improv.  That way, you are always consciously incompetent and trying to learn the skills you see around you.  But you’re not the worst, so you’re not going to feel like crap.  And confidence is a key part of successful improv.

This is by no means an experience that is only applicable to beginners.  I come across these blocks in my work every so often when I’m working with amazingly tight companies, strong singers and improvisers that never forget a name or drop a ball.  Just remember, whenever you know that you are terrible, that your improv is stale, that your work sucks, that you are the least funny/interesting person on stage; that is the point where you can go up a level.  That is the point where you’re challenging yourself and taking risks.  If you know you’re the most funny, interesting, talented, spontaneous person in the room, change rooms.  It’s important to feel good about conscious incompetence.  It’s the point where you’re most likely to surprise yourself, to take big risks and to push up your skill level.

Your degree of competence is important to different people in different ways:

The audience.  Audiences love to watch people that are at their ease, even if they are enjoying their own incompetence.

Your peers.  Your fellow improvisers, employers and teachers; they all want you to be good.  They want you to step up and they want to help you achieve great things.  They also have your back.

Yourself.  No one is a harsher judge than yourself.  Enjoy it.  Let you be the harsh critic of you.  Just don’t let the critic get in there when you’re playing.  Love a show, get out of your head.  Then sit down after and watch the video, see what you did good and bad and set yourself some goals.  A side note on notes; I was shocked the first time I had two improv teachers contradict each other.  It’s not like maths, there is no absolute right.  Do what you think is more interesting.  Just make sure you’re not doing it because it’s safe.  Push your own boundaries and take advice when it speaks to you as the right advice.  Try everything you get taught and keep what works for you.  Always go in with an open mind, then jettison stuff afterwards if it doesn’t help.

Now stand up and declare “I am consciously incompetent” and enjoy how much you can improve every time those words ring true.

1 Comment
  1. Thanks Katy.
    This is such a great frame for that (or those) bump(s) in development. I sometimes forget that it’s not a steady curve, but rather development and growth comes in waves and bunches – intercut with periods of self-doubt and frustration. Just yesterday I was pondering the joy beginners derive from beginner scenes. Your line – “there are no nerves, no stress, you know you can do whatever you want and there’s nothing important riding on it. You perform, you get LAUGHS – which is amazing – and then you’re done. Fun.” – reminded me why we all started doing this in the first place.
    And there’s always something new to learn, no matter where on the conscious/competence chart you are.

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