Golf coaches talk about four stages of learning. I’m adding a fifth…. (More)

“Competence must be excluded”

The New York TimesPaul Krugman opened with a seemingly trivial example:

When I travel to Asia, I’m fairly often met at the airport by someone holding a sign reading “Mr. Paul.” Why? In much of Asia, names are given family first, personal second – at home, the Prime Minister of Japan is referred to as Abe Shinzo. And the mistake is completely forgivable when it’s made by a taxi driver picking up a professor.

It’s not so forgivable, however, if the president of the United States makes the same mistake when welcoming the leader of one of our most important economic and security partners. But there it was: Donald Trump referring to Mr. Abe as, yes, Prime Minister Shinzo.

Like the First Lady ignoring her traditional duty to escort Mrs. Abe around our nation’s capital, referring to the Japanese leader as “Prime Minister Shinzo” was the kind of mistake a competent White House protocol staff would avoid. Alas, it’s part of a pattern, as Krugman explains:

Trivial? Well, it would be if it were an isolated instance. But it isn’t. What we’ve seen instead over the past three weeks is an awesome display of raw ignorance on every front. Worse, there’s no hint that either the White House or its allies in Congress see this as a problem. They appear to believe that expertise, or even basic familiarity with a subject, is for wimps; ignorance is strength.

He offers a bill of particulars: the bungled Muslim Ban order, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s affinity for conspiracy theories, misspelling British Prime Minister Theresa May’s name in official memos, and Republicans’ lack of any plan to replace or even repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s not just the God-King, Krugman notes. It’s all-but official GOP policy:

And that is, of course, the point. Competent lawyers might tell you that your Muslim ban is unconstitutional; competent scientists that climate change is real; competent economists that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves; competent voting experts that there weren’t millions of illegal ballots; competent diplomats that the Iran deal makes sense, and Putin is not your friend. So competence must be excluded.

Shunning competent advice can work if you’re running a presidential campaign, or leading an opposition party. In those roles, arrogant bluster is the proverbial “red meat” for an angry base. But actual governing requires more.

“That sure looks like fun, I think I’ll give it a try”

That brings me to golf, and the four stages of learning:

It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is a sport, a new job function, or virtually any new activity. Change or learning can be difficult. The first thing I typically point out is that change, especially positive change, doesn’t happen without some thought! And, they probably wouldn’t be taking lessons unless they recognized they needed to make some changes. If their learning is successful, when they’re done they won’t have to think too much! here’s why:


one day, you watch someone doing something, like golf, and think to yourself, “That sure looks like fun, I think I’ll give it a try.” At that point, you are in Stage one of learning the activity, which is called unconsciously incompetent. What happens? You typically discover that the activity is more difficult than it looks, and you fail to do it as well as you would like. You’ve found out that you’re not good at the activity, you just didn’t know it at that time!


So, now you’ve given it a try, maybe several times, and you’ve become very aware that you aren’t all that good at it. This is the consciously incompetent stage, when you start to turn down invitations to participate in the activity to avoid embarrassment. For most people, this is the time they start to buy instruction books, tapes, and sign up for lessons.
This is the “thinking” time, when you start to learn techniques that will help you master the activity, and move you to the next stage.


This is the stage of learning that is the toughest, because you have to be very aware of how you are executing the activity. It’s the time when practice is extremely important, as you train your body and mind to work together in new ways to produce the results you want. It’s also the stage where feedback, both positive and negative, is required to fine-tune the new techniques you are learning.

With lots of work, thinking, and refinement, you can reach Stage Three, being consciously competent in the new activity. as long as you take your time and think about it, you start feeling like, “I’m pretty good at this.” In golf, this is when we feel like we have to concentrate on 50 swing thoughts to execute an acceptable golf shot. However, our real goal is to get to Stage Four.


Stage Three can be satisfying, but it can also be quite tiring, since we always seem to be “working on our game” instead of just enjoying it. People that are truly good at an activity spend most of their time in Stage Four, the unconsciously competent stage. This is especially true when they are competing, such as in a golf tournament. This ultimate stage of learning is when you can concentrate on the results of the activity, instead of the process of the activity.

Maybe you don’t play golf, so I’ll offer a more familiar example. Back when you first tried to drive, you probably didn’t know much about how to operate a car. You may not have known where all of the controls were. You definitely didn’t know how much to turn the steering wheel, or depress the gas or brake pedal, to get the result you wanted. You probably had no idea about how to judge safe following distances, or when to start a turn or begin braking for a stop sign.

That’s why your parent or driver’s ed teacher probably started you in a big, empty lot. In those first nerve-wracking minutes behind the wheel, you moved from unconscious incompetence toward conscious incompetence … learning just how much you didn’t know about how to drive a car.

But with a couple of hours’ practice, you began moving toward conscious competence. You could control the car pretty well … if you thought carefully about everything you were doing. You may have watched the car in front of you pass a post or road stripe and counted “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two” to make sure you were a safe two seconds behind. To turn, you may have looked past the right edge of your hood at the corner of the road and began your turn when they lined up. While turning, you carefully passed the steering wheel hand-over-hand and just as carefully let it slip back as you completed the turn. To back up, you may have used a central spot on your rear window as a ‘sight’ to maintain a straight line. To stop, you may have slowed to a crawl and then eased forward, trying to reach a complete stop when you could just see, over your hood, where the rear tires of the car touched the pavement.

At that point, it was both true and false to say you “knew how to drive.” It was true in the sense that you could go and stop and turn pretty well. But it was also false, because you had to think through every maneuver … and that didn’t leave enough brain power for really taking in the traffic around you, or deciding what to do if you missed your turn, or even turning the wipers on if it started to rain. You could drive okay, but only if nothing unexpected happened. And of course in driving, the unexpected is pretty common.

It took a lot more hours’ of practice, plus classroom instruction, to ease into unconscious competence … where operating the car became muscle memory and unconscious judgment, freeing your conscious mind to focus on the traffic and other hazards.

“Do what I say or stay out of my way”

Now you’re out on the road of life and you encounter the God-King. He drives through life with a very different approach, one I’ll call arrogant incompetence. For him, the most important instrument in the car is … the horn.

You’re coming into an intersection on a green light and you hear a horn blaring from the left. Here comes the God-King, and you can either slam on the brakes and stay out of his way or get sued. His light wasn’t red, he’ll insist, and your saying you had a green light is “fake news.” He says his people will investigate your ‘real’ driving record. In fact, he says, your license is probably a fake and you’re committing ‘driver fraud’ just by being out there. He has a friend who has a friend who says that happens all the time.

Measuring skid marks and angles of impact? Pfft. That’s all fancy theory. Besides, he leaned on his horn.

Other witnesses saying your light was green and his was red? Obviously bought off. Plus, he leaned on his horn.

A “so-called” judge citing traffic laws? What a hack. A real judge would accept – as the only relevant evidence – that he leaned on his horn.

And it’s a beautiful horn. A loud horn. The loudest horn.

“You must have heard that horn!” he thunders. “So do what I say or stay out of my way!”

They don’t include arrogant incompetence in the four stages of learning because it’s not really a stage of learning at all. It’s a stage of refusing to learn … and that’s what the God-King and the GOP are about.

It’s up to the rest of us to make sure they learn that a loud horn is not enough.


Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool (Getty Images)


Good day and good nuts