by Ben M. Bartlett


What is the most effective way to master your skills and improve performance?  Online learning?  Attending lectures?  Coaching?  Apprenticing?

These days there are a myriad of ways that we can learn stuff.  But some are far more effective than others.

To explain, it is firstly important to understand the stages of learning we go through, together with the neuro-scientific process that takes place.

Once we understand these aspects of skill development, we can better identify the best learning and skill development approaches.

The four stages of skill development

When it comes to mastering a skill and performance, there are four stages of skill development that we go through.  The model below illustrates these stages:


From Wikipedia here is a summary of each stage:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.
  • Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  • Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  • Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.Source:

What is the goal of any skill development effort?  Naturally, it is to progress through the stages.

Unconscious incompetence is the lowest skill level, and when learning a skill our ultimate goal should be to become an unconscious 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? 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.

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 these neurons help us to learn skills, form habits and can even help us to break old habits.

And 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”.

In essence then:

  1. Learning and mastering a skill is a process that takes us from being an unconscious incompetent to an unconscious competent.  Unconscious competence is the stage where we have mastered a skill so much, it becomes second nature.
  2. We learn stuff by making neuron connections in our brain and nervous system. 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.

The best ways to make neuron connections and to become an unconscious competent?  The Skill Set Mastery Model helps to explain:


As the model illustrates, the objective of a learning journey is skill and performance mastery.

To get to the top of the pyramid, you have many learning methods and tools at your disposal.  Those at the base of the pyramid are the least costly and also the least effective, while those at the top of the pyramid are the most costly and most effective.

To put it another way, the methods at the top of the pyramid are the most effective in making strong neuron connections and in getting you to the stage four unconscious competent level.

In terms of choice, you need to decide how fast you want to master a skill.  Then, choose the learning method that matches your preferred learning pace and budget.

At the base of the pyramid is 100% online self-study, such as watching YouTube videos.  It’s mostly free, but the skill development pace will be slow.

At the top of the pyramid is blended coaching.  It is the option for the fastest and most effective learning and skill performance.

Blended coaching combines techniques used in elite sports coaching, trades apprenticeships and traditional learning into a powerfully integrated skill development process.  There is simply no better way to improve performance.