I came across a YouTube video last week by a solo fingerstyle guitarist named Adam Rafferty in which he discussed the proper way to practice guitar and learn a song. He started off by saying that there are four stages to learning a skill. (This isn’t rocket science, so I’ll go through it quickly.)
Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence—you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know that you don’t know.
Stage 2: Conscious incompetence—you have to think through the entire process, every note and every placement of a finger on a string is a struggle as you learn the piece.
Stage 3: Conscious competence—you know the piece pretty well, have committed parts to memory, but still have to look at the fretboard as you play. You are still thinking about the music as you play and maybe even worrying about the difficult sections. At this stage you may be able to play the piece well in practice but get nervous when playing for people, and the nerves interfere with the playing.
Stage 4: Unconscious competence—you know the piece so well that it just flows. The fingers know where to go without your conscious mind having to tell them—almost as if they have a mind of their own. You almost become a spectator of your own playing.
Obviously the goal is to get to Stage 4, and this is true of just about any skill that we are learning. Almost all of us are at Stage 4 when it comes to walking or running. We don’t have to think about it, we just do it, and we do it well.
But Stage 4 actually isn’t the final stage. I recently read a book about people who have developed their memories to an extraordinary degree—they have memorized pi out to thousands of digits, or can remember the order of multiple shuffled decks of cards after running through the decks just once. There are actually memory competitions that these people train for and compete it. (I don’t know which sounds more nerdy, that there are people who train for memory competitions, or that I actually read a book about them.) The author of the book, a journalist who was training for a memory competition himself, got to a point where he couldn’t improve any more. He could only memorize a certain number of random cards in an hour, and no more. He called his coach, who told him, essentially, that he had reach the stage of unconscious competence, but to improve even more he would have to push himself to such a degree that demanded conscious effort. He set a timer and forced himself to look at cards at a faster rate. Initially he made more mistakes—his competence went down—but it forced his mind to break through the plateau, and shortly thereafter he began improving again.
This makes a lot of sense. Take running, for instance. Most of us can do it without thinking, and really good runners do it better than most without thinking. But world class sprinters, to keep improving and getting faster and faster, have to think about running again. They have broken down the running process into its various parts and analyzed everything from their arm swing to their foot plant. They know how many strides they need to take staying low out of the blocks and when to move upright. They have analyzed their stride length, stride rate, and optimum lean at the finish. And when they compete, they are mentally engaged. In competition, they may run in stage 4, unconscious competence, but it’s a new level of unconscious competence.
Is spiritual growth any different? You may find yourself in a situation where you are pretty competent at spiritual things. You come to worship every week, participate in a weekly Bible study—or maybe two—and you pray and read your Bible on your own. You have a place of service, and you give generously of your time and your money. You are respected by other Christians—and maybe even some non-Christians, and you have been doing it long enough that it has become relatively effortless. You read the verses and automatically know what they mean. You sing the songs and don’t have to think about them.
For some, they’ve reached the pinnacle of the faith, and there’s nothing more to do but teach others to reach the high place that they’ve achieved. They become proud and self-righteous—and very dangerous.
But for others it doesn’t feel like they’ve reached a pinnacle but rather a plateau. Maybe for a time it frustrated you, but then you accepted that this was as good as it gets. You’re on autopilot, but it doesn’t feel right.
It’s time to take it to the next level. Before you were depending on your own efforts, and they worked for a while, but to reach the next level, you need to consciously allow Christ living in you to take more and more control of your life. There are a lot of things in our lives that it was easy to let Christ take control of, but that last, I don’t know, 10% or so is really hard. For those who think that surrendering to Christ living in you demands a passivity don’t understand just how hard full surrender is. You can achieve unconscious competence with partial surrender, but full surrender demands careful attention to foot plant and arm swing.