Six simple steps to making Conscious Incompetence work for you

In the previous posts in this series, I tried to explain the importance of Conscious Incompetence and how it can work to your advantage. Now it’s time to show you the key steps in turning the theory into practice.

Before I start, I want to reiterate that Conscious Incompetence is all about taking the risk of making mistakes — knowingly and deliberately — with a view to learning as much as you can from every one. It is not deliberately making a mistake; that isn’t going to teach you anything, since you knew whatever it was wouldn’t work from the start. To practice Conscious Incompetence you set out to get things right, but accept the near certainty that some of the time — maybe most of the time with a truly creative new idea — you will end up failing. Then you learn from your mistakes, improve your approach, and try again.

In fact, using Conscious Incompetence is going to ensure, over time, that you make fewer silly mistakes: especially those that come from repeating something that failed before, missing the reason for failure and continuing to get it wrong, and blundering into risky situations without understanding what you are doing.

How Conscious Incompetence works

  • The first and most important step is to engage your brain fully. You must know what you are doing and why, and be ready to size up the likely risks as best you can. Remember this is conscious incompetence; you aren’t going to blunder into something in the vague hope that you may learn as a result. You need to be clear about your objectives before you start, so that you can relate what happens to exactly the actions you took. Without this stage, learning will be haphazard, if it happens at all.
  • Choose your time, place, and circumstances with care. You’re going to do something deliberately risky. Don’t choose to do it in circumstances where failure is likely to be catastrophic for your business, your reputation, or your finances. Don’t practice being consciously incompetent in front of a large audience of key executives. Weight up the consequences of failure before you begin and act accordingly. Successful investors never risk more than they can afford to lose. Successful users of Conscious Incompetence do the same.
  • Decide on likely ways to keep track of the links between what you do and how events turn out. You don’t have to set up elaborate measures — which is not possible anyway in many instances — but you do have to understand what might prove to be cause and effect. It’s no use getting to the end of the trial, only to realize that you have no idea which actions helped and which didn’t because you weren’t keeping track.
  • Seek out all the feedback you can get. It’s very tempting to try to hide your errors, especially the embarrassing ones. Often the last thing you want to do is ask others what they observed, but it can be crucial to learning fully from your mistakes. Most people have a pretty realistic view of the actions of others, their benefits and drawbacks. Just about everyone — and I definitely include myself here — views their own actions through the rosiest of rose-tinted spectacles. We give ourselves the benefit of every doubt — and then some. If you want an objective understanding of why you didn’t succeed as you hoped, don’t rely on your own thoughts and observations. You’re hopelessly biased.
  • Learn from others as well. Life offers us innumerable lessons, if only we have the sense and humility to grasp them. Don’t waste time and energy envying those who are more successful; get your head down and try to work out what they did that made the difference. If others fail, try to learn from their mistakes too. You’re likely, as I said earlier, to have a more realistic appreciation of their actions than you will have of your own.
  • Always, always, go into the process determined to do your very best. Just because you accept that whatever you are doing is likely to fail is no reason to do less that you know you can. You won’t learn properly if you held back and delivered a deliberately sub-standard performance. One of the major reasons why people don’t get what they should out of anything labeled a “learning experience” is that they treat it more as play than real work. Knowing they won’t do well, they don’t try either. That’s stupid. How can you tell anything from a situation where you consciously didn’t try too hard? It’s obvious. All you are going to learn is that lack of effort or hard thinking increases the risk of failure, and you already knew that. Give it all you’ve got. If you fail, at least fail magnificently.
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When you make a mistake, thank your lucky stars

Conscious Incompetence is the action of doing something that you know that you cannot do properly, competently, or at all, for the purpose of learning or practicing how to do it better. It’s consciously and deliberately going out of your depth to learn how to swim well. In the process, you also let go of your pride and allow yourself to appear awkward, foolish, and sometimes stupid.

There are some provisos:

  • Because you are choosing to do this, you naturally try to select times and places where you are not going to cause yourself — or others — real damage by making mistakes.
  • When possible, you practice Conscious Incompetence away from the eyes of critics, especially bosses or jealous colleagues. This is, however, not always possible. Since your harshest critic is usually yourself, you have to be willing to put up with some internal carping and ignore it.
  • You limit the risks by doing a little at a time, when you can. Little and often is a good guide.
  • All episodes of Conscious Incompetence should be immediately followed up with time to reflect on what happened, what mistakes you made, and what you can learn from them. Conscious Incompetence is a learning process, so give yourself plenty of time to absorb the lessons.
  • However badly you do, you don’t give up — at least until you have proved to yourself that the effort is truly not worth it. You are practicing, not trying to win a competition.

Seek out every chance to practice more

Every mistake is both a precious learning opportunity and a chance to do better. Make enough of them and you may even produce something truly important — just so long as you don’t lose heart, give up too soon, or ignore the lessons that mistake can teach you.

Why do star athletes practice so hard? Surely they can already outdo almost everyone?

Make as many mistakes as you can, but do it deliberately

When Roger Federer became the leading male tennis player in the world, he didn’t sit back and decide all he needed to do thereafter was repeat whatever he did in his last few games. Like all the other champions, he’s competing against himself at that level of [/tag]achievement[/tag]: against what he judges to be flaws in his performance, even if everyone else thinks he is amazing. By continual practice, outstanding sports players make more and more mistakes when it doesn’t matter and they can learn from what they have done. That way, when it comes to a competition, all that work will pay off in a better performance than they could have achieved otherwise.

That’s why I call this pattern”conscious incompetence.” Because it is deliberate: a conscious means of setting out to stretch yourself in ways that you know you can’t yet manage competently or easily — actions that mean deliberately taking risks and setting yourself up to make a slew of mistakes.

The result is a burst of learning chances, carefully arranged to happen in circumstances where the mistakes that you make won’t cause you insuperable problems. By focusing on what doesn’t work, you will learn how to be better. By taking known risks, you’ll discover new possibilities. By doing it with the conscious purpose of learning, you can choose your place and time and protect yourself, as much as possible, from any downside.

We all make mistakes, all the time. Mostly we do it when we don’t want to, in circumstances we would much rather avoid. That limits our learning, because the immediate response is always to try to claw your way back to stop the pain and embarrassment. The ideal circumstances for learning demand calmness and relaxation, not a huge burst of fear and anxiety.

Pride is your worst enemy

One last thought: if you’re too proud, or too concerned with preserving your own dignity and status, to be seen to make a fool of yourself, you’ll not be able to learn a thing.

People who can’t risk looking silly end up risking everything else instead. The arrogant can’t learn because they have to pretend they know it all already. Only the humble have the good sense to understand how little they know — and how much is still out there to be learned.

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Why it�€™s important to let go, let be, and let the unexpected through

The universe has a way of producing greater riches than we expect — just not in the form we were looking for. Yet if your courage is strong and your mind open, you can seize these unexpected offerings and use them to your advantage. The randomness inherent in the universe requires your cooperation, if you are to benefit from its gifts. Walking along a fixed path, eyes wide shut and mind clamped on some hoped-for outcome, is inviting the future to run right over you, probably hurting you as it does.

The three essential steps in this process —letting go, letting be, and letting through — are often ignored, yet they are the only ways I know to defeat our human tendency to fall back into old habits and limited visions. Why restrict your future to what you can see right now — or, worse, to a robotic extension of past experience? If you give yourself time to look with fresh eyes and respond to reality — not just your assumptions about it — unseen possibilities will emerge. Five minutes spent considering people�€™s attempts to predict the future should be enough to prove to you that we humans are very poor at envisaging the future, while our predictions are laughable compared with what actually happens.

Letting go is essential to all change and development

Letting go of old habits, anxieties, and ways of seeing the world is the first step in making any change. It does not need to be an aggressive process. You don�€™t have to destroy the past or condemn it. Many of those former patterns of thought served you well in their time — only that time is past. Now they�€™re holding you back from changes you need to make. Let them go. Stop clinging to the past and walk away with no backward glances.

Few rules of thumb are more destructive of growth and creativity that the saying: �€œIf it ain�€™t broke, don�€™t fix it.�€� It doesn�€™t have to be broken to require change — just tied to the past and restricting your view of future possibilities. Nearly all progress depends on continuous improvement in small increments. Sudden changes and revolutions in thought are the exception. They also carry nearly all the risks. We remember and celebrate the few that succeeded, while overlooking the majority that failed.

Know when to let things be to settle down

The quickest way to return to old, discredited patterns of thinking and behavior is to add change upon change in a welter of excitement. Each new change undermines those that have gone before, while they�€™re still only loosely fixed in your daily behavior. The most likely result is a rapid series of failures and disappointments. Growth needs time. Life proceeds at its own pace and haste rarely pays off.

One you�€™ve made a change, the temptation to tinker with the new patterns can be strong. That�€™s where letting be is important. Changes take time to embed and become natural. Don�€™t be like a small child with a packet of seeds, digging them up every day to see if they�€™re growing yet. Your previous pattern of thinking probably took decades to form. You may feel as if you�€™ve swept it all away in a rush of enthusiasm for the new, but it�€™s still there and ready to return. Making new behaviors and patterns of thought stable will take longer than you think. Adding further changes too soon prolongs the process and weakens its impact. Those old habits easily snap back into place if they�€™re given an opening.

Let the future through

Taking your time and allowing events to develop naturally allows you to let the unexpected through. It�€™s amazing how often people block their growth and development by focusing only on what they expected, not what is actually coming into being.

Whatever you plan and expect your future to be is rarely — if ever — exactly what happens. Life is too uncertain and dynamic. Randomness is everywhere and even those events that follow some pattern happen according to their own logic, not your expectations.

If you allow yourself to become fixated on one desired result, you stand a good chance of being disappointed, as well as missing all the other the possibilities in whatever actually occurs.

By setting yourself fixed expectations, you open the door wide to disappointment and frustration, followed by remorse and a slow return to all those old, predictable ways. What you wanted and planned for didn�€™t happen and you assume that you have failed. Meanwhile the future is offering you more than you even dreamed was possible, only you�€™re blind to what that is as you fixate on hopes and dreams that weren�€™t fulfilled.

Letting the future through means:

  • Observe whatever emerges with an open mind. Let go of the narrow categories of expectation you formed earlier.
  • Stay on the alert to unexpected possibilities. Striving to see all the options that have arisen, not just whether the few that you expected have come to pass.
  • Open your mind to unexpected opportunities and have the courage to respond. Consistency is an over-rated attribute. Any fool can display consistent behavior and nearly all do.

Don�€™t waste time and energy trying to second-guess the future. Let go of past assumptions and habits and let the future be whatever it is. Stop trying try to force it into the limited confines of past expectations. Only by letting go of the past, letting yourself be at ease with change, and letting unexpected possibilities through, can you grow and develop, even in a random universe.

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Maybe you should think about NOT going with the flow

It�€™s very tempting to follow trends and fashions—after all, everyone else seems to be doing so and few of us like the feeling that we�€™re missing out on something big. But a little thought suggests that this isn�€™t always the best life and work strategy—or even a particularly useful one.

Take career choice, for example. From time to time, the media are full of stories about a shortage of some important skill; maybe there�€™s unmet demand in some area of computing, or project management abilities are in short supply, or whatever.

People start to move into the area of shortage. Schools change their curricula to meet the unsatisfied need. Sometimes governments shift resources around to encourage more people to enter those types of careers. But all this takes time. Several years pass and then a growing flood of people come on the market, all ready to supply the previously unmet demand.

When this happens, one of two outcomes is usual. Either the shortage quickly turns into a surplus, and only those first on the scene gain much benefit; or the demand has already evaporated, or been met in other ways. Either way, many of the those who jumped on that bandwagon find their shiny new skills and qualifications are no longer so fashionable, useful, or even so much desired.

Learning from the market

It�€™s worth considering also what happens in most markets. The businesses that create the market are often the ones that make most from it, not those who pile in later, when demand has peaked, the product has become a commodity, and competition is driving those who are left to cut prices and lay off staff. It�€™s the same in investing. Those who buy when others are selling get the bargains, just as those who sell when everyone else is buying get the highest prices.

Yet looking at the market also helps you to note that simply doing the opposite, or even the unexpected, isn�€™t some simple path to success. It�€™s not always the very first into a new field who makes money. Sometimes these pioneers create the market, yet their timing is off and they still fail. It�€™s the second or third business into that niche that really makes the money, just as it�€™s the second mouse at the trap who gets to eat the piece of cheese.

Novelty for its own sake can be a good way to fail. There are many creative people who don�€™t reap the rewards of their creativity because they are always too far ahead of the curve—or too far off from what others are ready to accept—that are therefore neither valued or listened to. They surely took a different path, but one that wasn�€™t viable yet. Being different and contrarian can itself become as much of a mindless course of action as jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Using your mind

The answer is neither to follow trends and fashions like a lemming, nor to be different for its own sake. What is needed is thought and time: time to consider the alternatives that others are in too much of a hurry to look at, and careful thought to work through the reasoning others skim over.

When everyone is rushing away from some traditional career area into the latest and most fashionable type of work, stop and think whether that �€œold-fashioned�€� career is truly going to disappear any time soon. Many types of job have been around for a long time precisely because they are always needed. If the supply of entrants falls because most people no longer see it as the �€œin�€� kind of work to choose, there may be some great opportunities open for those with more foresight and less willingness to be railroaded into a decision.

In the rest of life too, when—as today—it�€™s seen as �€œnormal�€� to focus on getting and spending, to the exclusion of almost everything else, it might be a good time to stop and consider what would happen if you restrained your current lifestyle and set money aside regularly. When most people are up to their necks in debt, and not a few are facing foreclosure on their mortgages, what would it be worth to be able to view the situation calmly, knowing that you are not affected? What might you have money for in the future, when most people have already spent theirs?

Five good reasons for following your own path in life

Over the years, I have noticed that the majority of people rarely, if ever, follow their own path and make their own choices in life. They do what is expected of them by others, they follow the fashion, they fit in with what they believe everyone else is doing, seeking a spurious safety in numbers. As a result, they prosper only when everyone else prospers, sharing just a small part of a reward that has to be split with millions of others, and suffer when everyone else suffers and the suffering is therefore at its greatest.

Slow down and consider these reasons for choosing to use your mind independently and follow your own track, fashionable or not:

  • You can take advantage of opportunities others have missed.
  • You can slip into small niches that will never accommodate the masses, but which can still prove both enjoyable and profitable.
  • Because you know what you have chosen and why, you can learn as much or more from your mistakes as your successes.
  • It�€™s very easy for you to be flexible and change direction when circumstances change. There are no huge groups of people to be turned around or retrained in some new area first.
  • You can practice �€œstealth choices�€�: discovering some unmet demand or unseen opportunity and quietly stepping into it without alerting everyone else and spoiling your chances as a result.

Human beings have come to be the dominant animals on this planet by virtue of their ability to think and plan. If success were based on just on numbers and the herd instinct, every land mass would be dominated by buffalo, wildebeest, and lemmings instead of people.

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This post has been contributed by one of our regular readers from The Netherlands, Douwe van der Werf, who lives in Amsterdam—one of my favorite cities in the world. If you too would like to suggest an article for Slow Leadership, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected].

The power of metaphors to take a simple look at complex processes


A while back, I was responsible for a large project involving lots of people and variables. I was pretty stressed out about it I can tell you, with not a chance on taking a day off any time soon. I had been working like a madman every day of the week, for weeks and weeks on end, and it seemed that the harder I worked, the less effective the results of my work became.

At a certain point, I came to the sad conclusion I wasn�€™t being effective at all. All my actions seemed to just bounce more things my way. So I started thinking over and over again about all the production aspects and processes of the project. Where was I making the big mistake? Where could I hand over responsibility? Where was I just over-stressing? It all seemed equally important!

Bloodthirsty Zombie To-Do’s

The more I thought of it, the more solutions I saw. Yet with every solution came a new and even bigger problem. Then all the things that were still left undone took their turn, and started nagging my poor head, full of bloodthirsty Zombie To-Do’s.

The answer to all of my problems was just about to present itself, at a playground, in the form of a wonderful metaphor.

Stressed out, angry, and sad, I took my two year old son to the playground a few blocks away, just to have completely unproductive fun together and get some sand in our hair and ears. I decided to leave my phone at home, and also everything else that could possibly remind me of the monstrous task ahead.

It didn�€™t work. Not at all. Even in the sandbox, my brains where just doing what they wanted, reminding me over and over again of my demonic pit of undone-ness.

The gift of bubbles

Then in the diaper bag, I found a bottle of bubble soap. I opened the bottle, put the bubble what-you-call-it to my mouth and started blowing. The results were pretty poor. Every now and then a single bubble would come into existence, only to die alone a few moments later against my jacket.

The realization struck me like a bolt of lightning: I wasn�€™t producing any bubbles, because I was blowing far too hard, without even taking the direction of the wind into account.

How could I ever finish any project, if I was just putting in loads of air with lots of force, while I wasn�€™t even checking if it produced anything? How could I finish anything, if I couldn�€™t even focus on blowing bubbles properly?

A huge load fell off my shoulders immediately. The solution to all of my problems was to use less force, and try to find the natural flow required to blow the bubbles I wanted to produce. Within no time, I had finished my project in a relaxed manner. A miracle cure? To me it certainly was.

Using appropriate force

Whenever you�€™re up to your neck in work, try to remember the Noble Art of Blowing Bubbles. No matter how hard the wind, just try to turn your back to it and make use of its power. Try to tune your blowing to the required force—and always make sure you�€™re producing the bubbles you want.

And while you�€™re blowing bubbles, think of wave surfing too. Whenever a wave of stress is coming your way, anticipate it by getting on top of your board, on top of the wave, just enjoying it, and be a hero to yourself and anyone looking at you. The wave will disappear, just like the bubbles. It will still grab you, but the results of practice can never be taken away.

You might start enjoying that stress too

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. . . there�€™s no innovation without risk


The signers of the Declaration of Independence demonstrated tremendous innovation. The reason is because innovation, whether personally, professionally or corporately, requires risk.

Had things turned out differently, our founding fathers would have been hung and their legacy would be as traitors of the crown, not patriots of the United States.

They risked everything they had to create a new nation.

If you need to be more creative, start with being more risky. The Personal Leadership Insight Essential of Innovativeness is defined as creatively pursuing a plan. This starts with determining two things.

  • What are you willing to risk? What ideas, beliefs, products, relationships, systems, processes, etc. are you willing to potentially give up? For most people and organizations, the answer to this question is nothing. Hence the reason why real innovation rarely happens. If you can�€™t get your mind around losing where you currently are, you will never get to where you need to be.
  • For what are you willing to risk? What is important to you? I mean really important. So important you will stretch yourself, your resources, your pride, your team, or your creative muscles to ensure it is either projected to the world (an idea/product) or is protected from the world (a belief/value).

Many people and organizations claim to have a wide range of interests and priorities. However, if everything is important to you, than essentially nothing is. Figuring out what you are willing to risk for requires discipline in deciding what is really important to you and holding those priorities to a different standard.

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