I don’t know about you, but when I get busy, and I start to tackle a new project that – on the surface – resembles so many of my other projects, I tend to slip into auto-pilot mode. I just KNOW what the producer wants. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Remember that old adage – “never assume – because it makes an ass out of you and me?” Slipping into what has been called Stage Four Learning can sometimes mean getting a project off on the wrong foot. Sometimes it can mean losing a client.

Here is a quick refresher on the Four Stages of Learning…

  1. Unconsciously incompetent
    You don’t understand how to do something – and probably don’t even realize that you don’t know how to do it. Relating this to voiceover work – you have been told you should be doing voiceover work, but you don’t know anything about the business, or about your own abilities and potential. You tend to ask questions that really can’t be answered. Your job at this stage. Listen. Listen. Listen.
  2. Consciously incompetent
    You still don’t know how to do something – but now, at this stage you recognize that you don’t know and you are starting to see what needs to be done to address the issue. It is at this stage where you can begin asking relevant questions and learn from your mistakes. At this stage you need to – Practice. Practice. Practice.
  3. Consciously competent
    At this stage you now know how to do something. But you actively think about the process – what steps to take and when. I personally spend a lot of time in this stage – especially when it comes to new auditions, or new clients with unusual requirements. (Or is it really this stage, or another stage of learning that acknowledges our experience and practice.) Here in this stage we need to think. Think. Think. Think.
  4. Unconsciously competent
    You now have had so much listening, practicing, thinking about something that you simply “do it.” Second nature. Auto-pilot. Chew gum and walk at the same time. In the voiceover world, I have called it Voiceover Zen. When driving a car, I call it stupid. Doing something over and over again the same way can lead to complacency – and mistakes. Complacency may lead to a failure to keep up-to-date on the changes in our business.

I don’t see these Stages of Learning as a ladder that stops at Stage 4.  In fact, some suggest that there is a Stage Five – something that could be called “Reflective Consciousness,” or “Enlightened Consciousness.” We have developed the ability to understand what we do in this unconscious state. Or we have developed the ability to help others understand and move through the stages of learning.

This diagram shows us constantly moving in and out of the various stages of competency. I like this matrix idea. It combines what we have learned through practice with what it took to get there and how life is filled with change that must be acknowledged. I have never been fond of moving through life in an unconscious state.  

I have also never been fond of the word “competent.” My whole upbringing was such that being competent wasn’t good enough. I needed to be better than just competent. In fact, there are two definitions of competency.

  1. having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.
  2. adequate but not exceptional.

I liked the notion of a stage above competency. So Stage Four felt “better” to me. But I like this model of competency. I am not even the least bit upset with the word “mature.”

Competency Matrix

(Courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007. Please reference the diagram accordingly if you use it.)

The driving analogy is used a lot because nearly all of us can relate to it. On the freeway, I prefer that the drivers around me stay in some sort of conscious stage (either back to Stage Three or this “new” Stage Five) while at the wheel, but we all do it – zone out because we KNOW how to drive. But then we miss our exit and over correct, which causes someone else to surface from their auto-pilot trance and over correct. Doing anything well, but not thinking about it at all can have unintended consequences. 

Relating this to my business…jumping in the studio and cranking out a few paragraphs for a new client because I simply KNOW what the producer wants can mean one of two things – a hearty “that’s perfect” to a very disappointed “that’s not quite what I was expecting.” Better that I take one step back down the ladder (or up) or around the matrix and make sure that I know what the producer is expecting. 

There are a few regular projects I do that allow me to record in auto-pilot. The names, addresses and phone numbers of eye docs, dentists and lawyers for example. Plug the script into the recording software and play mental games in one part of my brain (“How many more names in CA, before FL?”), while another part reads, hears, corrects and finishes the project without a lot of conscious effort. But this is rare. Most of my work needs to incorporate all of the lessons learned along the way – reflective competence.

Don’t assume you know what to do simply because you have done it so much that it has become second nature. Especially when working with a new client. Their expectations and experiences could be vastly different than yours. So step away from that Unconscious Competency bubble for a moment and reflect on the big picture before hitting the record button.