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Learning to be in Flow - the Competency Islands

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

In this article I talk about what it is like to learn something new and how you can use this to learn how to be in Flow. It also asks you to consider what it is like to be 'consciously incompetent' as a desired way to learn. This means that you are fully aware that you can't do something very well, but use that time to improve your ability with practice and feedback.

What is Flow?

Being ‘In Flow’ is a state of mastery and focus. It’s when you are so in tune with your capability and the activity that it literally ‘flows’ without any real conscious effort.

There are many benefits to being ‘In Flow’ in an activity – time stands still, it is effortless and engages your whole mind and body in a relaxed way as well as being a fabulous state for being creative.

We can say that the ‘In Flow’ state is a demonstration of an unconsciously competent ability. Our unconscious mind is doing the work and we are not conscious of the effort or the process. It’s like being on auto pilot.


What does it take to be in Flow?

To reach this peak state of In Flow takes a combination of things and the first is to actually learn the activity, and we all know what it is like to learn something new. If the peak state of in Flow is being Unconsciously Competent, then the state we are in when learning something is actually the opposite – we know we are not capable yet and have to concentrate on everything to learn it. We can say that we are Consciously Incompetent.

Quite often, this state of being is seen as a punishing experience. We don’t like it, it’s not comfortable, we feel stupid and because of this we can often avoid learning something new – just because it is not a pleasant experience.

And yet, to achieve everything we are good at we had to go through that same process – we have been doing it since birth. From our first smile to our first step and onwards, we have been going through the process. Children learn quickly and keep going because they have yet to experience the ‘I feel silly’ reaction that us adults have added to the process – and as soon as we have that conscious thought, it holds us back from taking on new skills and finding more and more ways of being ‘In Flow’.

So, here is a different way of looking at the learning experience, taking you back to the way a child learns and has fun while learning.


The 4 levels of learning:

  1. Unconsciously Incompetent - you don't know what you do

  2. Consciously Incompetent - you know what you don't know

  3. Consciously Competent - you have to concentrate to get it right

  4. Unconsciously Competent - auto pilot/in Flow

In fact – the best state to be in, the one offers more potential and fun that any other state, is being Consciously Incompetent.

I love it when I learn something new. For example, there was the time I learned how to do a fishtail plait in my Granddaughters hair. It’s taken some practice and I’ve now got to the point where my efforts are worthy of public display – but for a long time before that I was really rubbish at it, and thanks to the immediate feedback from my Granddaughter I also knew I was rubbish!!

So, there I was, telling myself I looked stupid. It’s such an uncomfortable place to be! After all, I had raised two daughters of my own and managed a whole variety of plaits and bobbles and clips very competently when they were young. Yet here I was, feeling rubbish, getting impatient and wanting to ditch the whole thing – Argghhh!!

And then I realised, the more I beat myself up for not getting it right, the less I enjoyed it. The more I got impatient to be perfect, the less time I spent practicing. The more time I spent comparing my efforts to my past creations, the less I appreciated the progress I was making. I was spending too much time wishing I was back at the state of Unconsciously Competent when, where I was – Consciously Incompetent – should be my destination of choice!

Now hold on a minute – what am I thinking? That being Consciously Incompetent is where I want to be? Well actually YES! Isn’t it the place where all the best learning happens? Isn’t it where there is nothing but possibility and progress ahead of you? Isn’t this where you absolutely NEED to be?

And in that moment of realisation I had a flash of inspiration. That uncomfortable place that was to be avoided and got through as quickly as possible, that place that is often shown as the bottom of the change curve, suddenly changed.

How would it be if It was replaced with a place called the Competency Islands, a holiday destination,

Here is what an advert for this destination would look like!

“The Competency Islands, an Island-hopping experience that’s guaranteed to boost your skill set.

All four islands are visited as part of this amazing life changing package with the most exiting and rewarding attractions being found on Consciously Incompetent island.

Here you can relax in the 'New Learning Lagoon', work out in the 'Extra Effort needed gym', go round and round on the 'Remember the process' roller coaster and climb the 'Get it Right Next Time' Mountains (Guides and maps free)

Every visit is as rewarding as the last so to make sure you book your activities ahead – this Island is the busiest of the chain and the full stay must not be missed!”

1. Unconsciously Incompetent Island – this is where you start and find out that you don’t know what you don’t know

2. Consciously Incompetent Island – just a short boat ride away and where you get to find out what it is you don’t know how to do and try out new things

3. Consciously Competent Island – the next stop on the journey and where you work hard at getting good at what you want to do

4. Unconsciously Competent Island – the final stop in this Island chain and where you can do what you learned without even thinking about it

So, from now on I’m ditching the uncomfortable way of thinking about my learning experiences and instead of dreading the feeling of incompetence I will be eagerly booking my ticket for my next learning destination of choice. I will be climbing Get it Right Next Time’’ mountain and noticing, as I practice, how much easier it’s getting. It’s going to fun falling, getting up and having another go. The thrill of the ‘Remember the Process’ rollercoaster that makes me scream with delight when I get on again and again - And when all attractions have been visited it will be time to move onto the next island in the chain.

I can’t wait to go again – Consciously Incompetent Island – A great place to be.

Don’t delay – keep your mind learning, growing and developing !!

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