How we learn stuff, develop our skills and become champions

How we learn stuff, develop our skills and become champions

Last month I wrote a lesson about learning and illustrated Abraham Maslow’s four stages of learning model.  To recap, Maslow’s model is based on the idea that when we learn a skill or habit we go through four distinct stages namely:

  1. Unconscious incompetent
  2. Conscious incompetent
  3. Conscious competent
  4. Unconscious competent

Unconscious incompetent is the lowest skill level, and when learning a skill our ultimate goal should be to become an unconcious competent – that level where we can unconsciously perform that skill as if it were second nature.

So how do we get from stage 1 to stage 4 when developing a skill?  How do we become an expert in other words?  There are a variety of different methods or processes to help us get through the stages of skill development but the underlying principle remains the same.

Learning and developing a skill is all about connecting the many neurons involved in a skill, and then strengthening the neuron connections.

Let me explain this principle by firstly defining what a neuron is.

As defined by Wikipedia “A neuron (pronounced /ˈnjʊərɒn/ N(Y)OOR-on, also known as a neuronenerve cell) is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signaling.”

Within our brain and nervous system we have over 100 billion neurons – and each one of these neurons helps us to learn skills, form habits and can even help us to break old habits.

So how does this process work?  Here’s a good explanation from John Farndon of, the official website of the Nobel Prize.

The whole process of how nerves work and how we learn things turns out to be just as awesome and fantastic as we would expect such a mechanism to be.

Whenever a new sensation comes into your brain, it sends a flurry of activity surging through a particular tangle or network of neurons. Each neuron involved not only passes on its message to other neurons, but sends a signal back to the neurons that alerted it. This feedback loop might amplify the signal, or dampen it down. After the initial signal has died down, the neurons involved reinforce their connections with one another, so that they are primed and ready to fire again much more readily if the same sensation comes in, like a well-trodden path through the brain. If the sensation is not repeated, the connections begin to weaken, as the path falls out of use.

This is why practice makes perfect. The more a particular sensation or action is repeated, the more a particular pattern of neurons becomes strengthened. Practice something over and over again and you are building up the relevant neural pattern in your brain…

“Nerve Signalling: Tracing the Wiring of Life”.

To summarise:

  1. We learn stuff by making neuron connections in our brain and nervous system.
  2. Neurons work by sending and receiving signals.
  3. When we practice something over and over again it reinforces the network of neuron connections, thereby establishing a strong behavior or skill pattern.