On the Path to Competence

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Report cover
The cover page of an unclassified report created for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research by the Dreyfus brothers.

"To become expert, one must take risks."
—philosopher Hubert Dreyfus

If you are ambitious and a perfectionist but extremely risk averse, these words of advice may create a lot of cognitive stress for you, as they do for me. But risk is a necessary ingredient of how people learn to become masters of their work.

In 1980 at the University of California, Berkeley, brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus wrote an influential 18-page paper on the stages of directed skill acquisition. They say a student passes through five distinct stages on their way to learning a skill: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. And this model was named after the pair: "the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition."

They argue that when students follow abstract formal rules (such as for learning sounds and grammar rules of a foreign language) it does produce minimal skill, but “only experience with concrete cases can account for higher levels of performance.”

I see now where the risk comes in. The scariest part of learning a new skill is taking into daily life what you’ve learned in a purely theoretical setting, and then applying it to worldly problems. You can see the safety net erode a bit in the middle step of competence where you’ve got to learn to identify meaningful patterns, presumably both good and bad:

"Competence comes only after considerable experience actually coping with real situations in which the student notes or an instructor points out recurrent meaningful component patterns. These situational components, in terms of which a competent student understands his environment, are no longer the context-free features used by the novice."

But if you keep advancing on this path, applying your skill will no longer be scary. In fact it can become second nature as you will ultimately rely on intuition to guide your correct decisions:

"The expert performer in a particular task environment has reached the final stage in the step-wise improvement of mental processing which we have been following. Up to this stage, the performer needed some sort of analytical principle (rule, guideline, maxim) to connect his grasp of the general situation to a specific action. Now his repertoire of experienced situations is so vast that normally each specific situation immediately dictates an intuitively appropriate action."

Though risk-taking is a requirement of sorts for advancement through the stages, I wonder if you can measure your aptitude for risk-taking with the Dreyfus model. If so, I’ll do well to move from beginner to competent.

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