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New York, New York

Columbia '14 | urbanite | foodie | explorer | aspiring ukulelist | wanderlust 

Thought Sketches



The Benefits of Staggered Learning Curves

Sarah Chang

How many times have you wanted to learn something new -- play guitar, learn a language, pick up photography -- only to lose interest after a few weeks of concentrated interest?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is organizing everything I’m learning into a matrix of staggered learning curves. It comes from the basic idea of the Four Stages of Competence, but instead of tracking progress for a single task, it’s more fitting to apply the theory to everything I’m learning concurrently

The model uses the theory behind the Dunning-Kruger effect (the idea that you know so little about something that you don’t know how bad you are, and dangerously, think you’re better than you actually are) to illustrate a ladder of competency: 

  1. Unconscious incompetence: you’re so bad don’t know how bad you are 
  2. Conscious incompetence: you’re at least good enough to know how bad you are
  3. Conscious competence: you’re only good with deliberate effort
  4. Unconscious competence: you’re so good it becomes second nature


Taking it a step beyond what the ladder categorizes and applying it in useful ways, ideally my goal is to be at a different stage in each competency level at any given time.

For instance, I picked up ukulele five months ago and am at third tier of conscious competence, whereas my design skills as of two weeks ago are barely emerging out of the first stage of unconscious incompetence. 

I’m finding that it’s a good way to manage progress across several areas at once, and you can easily assess where you’re at in terms of progress and estimate how much longer it will take you to reach a final level of mastery.

There are so many benefits to measuring progress this way:

  1. It’s staggered growth. You’re creating a more systematic approach to control how quickly you’re advancing in any given area. There’s more consistency, predictability, and relative measurement of progress.
  2. You’ll reach unconscious competence fairly consistently after certain intervals of time (though this can be several months). This leads to sustainable, predictable periods of feeling the “high’s” of accomplishment that encourage you to keep learning things with a long-term perspective. 
  3. It minimizes the frustration of learning something new. It’s often easy to get disheartened in the beginning when there’s a large amount of resistance when facing a steep learning curve. If you spread out when you start learning several new things, you’ll be able to avoid being stuck at the bottom of the curve for all the things at once (as well as the disappointment that comes with it).
  4. The learning process is smoother if you’re adding new skills and diversifying what you’re doing day-to-day. There’s less room for boredom, and you won’t tire as easily of doing the same activities, again adding to the longevity of trying to learn and master something new.
  5. If at any point you take a hiatus, there’s enough accumulated experience in any given new skill so there’s something to pick back up in the future

I've found this way of thinking of every new skill, interest, or hobby I'm starting to be really effective in avoiding burnout, lost of interest, and general die-down of motivation after the first few days

Skills (or more aptly, lack of skills) in the first two stages really are not that useful or anything to speak of, so it's important to be able to push beyond the point when everyone else gives up because it's "too hard". Only after that will you transcend the boundary to contribute something both valuable and interesting.