I recently attended a training class, and one of the things they talked about was the types of competence. They can be broken down into four stages: Unconscious Incompetence, where you don’t even know what you don’t know; Conscious Incompetence, where you know there is lots you don’t know, and you have a handle on what it is you need to learn; Conscious Competence, where you have learned the stuff but have to think about it, but generally can do what needs doing; and Unconscious Competence, where you have done it so long it is part of your nervous system.

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating: The people at the level of Unconscious Competence, who are REALLY good at what they do, often do not really know how they are doing what they are doing. Malcom Gladwell wrote about this in Blink, and I highly recommend reading it. One of his examples was asking top tennis pros how they hit forehand shots. After they described, in detail, how they hit their shots, Gladwell filmed them with high speed cameras. What they actually did, and what they said they did, were different!

This came home to me in two ways, one when I was learning technical stock day trading – I had the best coach, and he was very successful. I did what he said, but until I had my own ways, what he told me did not work. Even trading side by side with him, his trades were better than mine. Consistently. Because he was Unconsciously Competent.

The other way was many years ago when I was trying to learn to do a back extension roll in gymnastics (at 30 yrs old but that is another story.) My coaches had learned to do this when they were 5 years old, and them telling an analytical adult how to do it was problematic, at least for me. They all told me how it was timing, how it involved pushing off with your arms… lots of things that might have been true, but were in no way the crux of how to do the technique (which is actually a kip.) After struggling with it for a month, I finally asked one of the kids to do a bunch of them so I could watch. And they did, and on about the 5th or 6th one they did right in front of me, I saw something that made me realize that what they were telling me, while technically true, was not the key move. As soon as I saw what was, I could do the trick. Not after practicing, not a day later, Right. That. Second. That’s how important that little piece of information was, and it is true in almost any skill that you have not been able to get. Gymnastics is really bad for this, because 99% of it is monkey see-monkey do, where all you get is someone demonstrating the technique and you get to copy it; but you copy it from someone who has been doing it so long it is like walking to them. And they no longer can tell how how they do it – their nervous system knows, but their brain has long forgotten it.

So if you hire a coach or a mentor (mentors in particular!) to help you learn to do something, because they have been great at it – they probably won’t be able to teach you how to do it. Because they don’t know anymore. They can help you get set up for success, sometimes, but more often than not there are a hundred things they do that they don’t even think about.

Let’s look at flipping a house. Go to a successful, (Unconscious Competence) house flipper. They can have a 90% certainty about whether a flip will be profitable just looking at the house from the street. [Some of us have bought houses sight unseen…] They can walk into the kitchen and know what needs to happen, and usually know very close to what it will cost and how long it will take.

What will they teach you? – Find a house at below market value; in a good neighborhood; where the fixup costs will be manageable; and where the finished price will make a profit or it will rent decently. In a nutshell, that is what they will teach you. But what do they do? They are imagining the home as it will look when they are done, they already know the look of the neighborhood, and they have a contractor in mind who will do the work for a reasonable cost; they know the area so well they know what a home like that will rent for, and they know what it will sell for. And those are things they can tell you to figure out, but they are also things with lots and lots of missing information that they have internalized and won’t be able to tell you how to figure them out.

So the right person to hire is someone who is Consciously Competent, because they haven’t internalized the important stuff yet. They won’t be as successful as an Unconscious Competent, but they will have more useful information!

Blink is one of the most eye-opening books I have read, and I highly recommend it.