There’s nothing quite as satisfying as learning a new skill. This is because it relates to what we are actually doing, rather than just what we know – or think we know.
In some areas, the difference between knowledge and skill is more obvious than in others. Think about it, a purely theoretical knowledge of how to waltz won’t get you anywhere if someone asks you to partner them for a Viennese extravaganza. What you need is to have done loads of practice to move it into your ’muscle memory’. As project and change practitioners, knowledge alone will quickly leave us exposed if we don’t practise what we’ve learned and develop our new skills.
Practice is what embeds skills. Ramesh Lehay describes the learning process as moving from conscious incompetence (you are certain you don’t have this skill), to conscious competence (with concentration, you can do this now), to unconscious competence (now it’s instinct and you can perform skilfully without even appearing to think – it’s in your muscle memory!). In some situations, the starting point may be ’unconscious incompetence’, where we think what we’re doing is fine, because we don’t understand the skill or its importance.
It is only practice that can move us through to the happy state of unconscious competence, but the time leading up to this can be stressful, with the fear of failure looming large. Fear is detrimental to learning – we can’t focus when we’re worried, threatened or stressed. We daren’t practise and risk looking bad if we are fearful of what others will think of us, or if we feel threatened by our surroundings. The first thing that’s needed to facilitate effective practice and learning is a safe and supportive environment, where people don’t feel threatened or worry about being exposed as not knowing enough. Classroom based training courses can be very helpful in creating a completely safe ’wrap around’ culture that just allows you to settle and learn. When everyone around you has a common goal and is in a similar position, making mistakes is seen as an excellent way of learning rather than a risk that’s best avoided.
It’s here in the training room that the learning process starts, with learning that not only transmits knowledge but gives enough space for people to acquire skills by doing practice. But the process doesn’t end in the classroom – real skill only comes where learners continue to apply new techniques, and practise these frequently, once they are back in the workplace.
Learning can be both scary and frustrating, but it’s very rewarding – and continually stretching ourselves to reach beyond our ’unconscious competence’ comfort zone is how we keep growing, throughout our careers and our lives.