How To Be Good At Anything: The Conscious Competence Model.

pokerI feared losing because there was now much more on the line than money. I have made poker part of my identity, so failing would mean I was a failure and that was more than my confidence could handle.

I play professional poker. I’m gifted mathematically, have a passion for psychology, enjoy strategy, and have been a dedicated sports competitor my whole life. I am built for poker and I love playing it.

This is part 1 of my “How to Be Good At Anything” series. Here is part 2 and part 3.

However, poker isn’t easy for anybody. It’s a game of missing information, minimum feedback, countless scenarios, and extreme variance. It’s one of the only games you can play perfectly for days and still lose. There is no wonder the game is infamous for its tilt – a common poker term describing anger and bad play.

Eight months ago my former coach and great friend would, for the second time, save my poker career. At the time, my results were anything but easy. I wasn’t winning as much or as often as I thought I had previously proven I was capable of. When I would get to the tables I could experience some of my worst play; either relentlessly making errors for hours or quitting in overwhelming inner rage after 5 minutes. I started to play less and less at a time when my dream of professional poker was in crisis. Enter Jerad Tendler’s book, The Mental Game of Poker. It was a late birthday present turned Christmas present I received in the mail. I was about to learn about the mental game; I knew all the skills, but my performance depended on it.

Forward Acknowledgement: This is an article of strategies I learned from The Mental Game of Poker on the foundation of how to learn. The ideas, terms and lines are taken directly, or slightly modified, from Jared Tendler’s book. Though the theories are nothing new (some frequently attributed to the psychologist Abraham Maslow), Jared Tendler brilliantly explains them in his own way and it was in his book where I truly came to understand the content. If you are interested in these topics, or if you like poker, pick it up.

Work harder when it’s hard, and eventually it will become easy for real.
– Jared Tendler

Success takes talent, hard work, and the right information. Fortunately, the only thing you don’t control is talent. The rest is learning. If learning yields success, then learning to learn and perform well will exponentially increase your rate of success. Remember, life is a process, nothing is permanent, and nobody owns anything forever. Perfection is a moving target and success is growth.

People who understand the processes of learning and performance avoid issues with frustration, fear, motivation and confidence that obstruct growth. Tendler explains “they aren’t fighting against what they think is true, and instead can work within the reality of what is true. Several issues can be eliminated simply by better understanding how to learn and perform.

The three theories that form the foundation for an organized and logical structure to development are:

  1. The Conscious Competence Model: describes the four distinct levels of learning.
  2. Inchworm: Shows how improvement happens over time.
  3. The Process Model: Makes it easier to consistently perform at your best and improve over time.”

This additional information may make learning seem more complex. However, in the long run you’ll have the information necessary to improve anything. Today we will begin with the Conscious Competence Model. Make sure you subscribe to the newsletter on the right to be notified when the next two theories are released.

The Conscious Competence Model

Note: Tendler calls the theory The Adult Learning Model, but psychology has previously defined it as The Conscious Competence Model (or Ladder/Matrix).

The process of learning a skill is “predictable and has a distinct start and finish.” We’re all unique individuals with personalities. Certain personality types favour certain skills. While we each respond uniquely to various methods of learning, “the overall process is the exact same.”

The Conscious Competence Model (CCM) is a simple explanation of how we learn. The theory describes four distinct stages:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: “You do not even know what you don’t know.” Namely, you have no awareness that you lack skill. This is the stage of ignorance.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: You’ve gained awareness of the deficit. Now, you know what you don’t know. “You’re not skilled, but you know what skills you need to improve.” You know that by improving in this area, your effectiveness will improve. Becoming conscious is the loss of ignorance, and with it may come guilt. You now realize the effect of your past mistakes. Remember, you can not always be perfect, you can only do your best. “Mistakes are going to happen. The bigger mistake is letting one turn into more.”
  3. Conscious Competence: You know how to do the skill the right way. You can execute the skill at will. However, the catch is it requires concentration. Without focused conscious involvement you return to incompetence.
  4. Unconscious Competence: You have so much practice in the skill it has entered the unconscious parts of the brain. The skill is now integrated into your instinct as second nature. “You’ve learned something so well that it is now totally automatic and requires no thinking. Unconscious competence is the holy grail of learning”, and is by far the most important concept in this post.

Tendler relates the theory to learning how to drive a car. “These levels make sense when you begin to think about your own experience in learning just about anything… as a small child you barely knew what a car was. This is unconscious incompetence. Then, as a teenager, you gained awareness and became frustrated by the fact you couldn’t drive. You became conscious of your incompetence.

car manual stickNow, think back to the first time you got behind the wheel of a car. You need to learn how to: steer, step on the gas, watch the road and change the radio station all at the same time; parallel park; adjust to the speed of highway traffic; and deal with thousands of unique situations. Then you needed to concentrate and think about all these things so you didn’t harm yourself or others. This is conscious competence.

After driving for years, you no longer think about every single action needed to drive a car; your skill comes naturally and with little effort. You can handle driving, listening to music, talking to passengers and extreme situations that arise, all without much thought. Driving is a skill now trained to the level of unconscious competence.”

Tendler then provides a brilliant exercise. It’s so powerful I recommend writing down the answers to actively engage yourself. “To begin looking at how the Adult Learning Model applies to your greatest skill, take a minute to think about:

  • How much you knew the first time you tried it.
  • The complexity of your thought process when making decisions now compared to when you first started.
  • A mistake you recently discovered.
  • Decisions that are now automatic.
  • Mistakes that don’t happen anymore.”

For me, my greatest skill is poker. I have a deep relationship with it. It is my purpose. Through this exercise I can appreciate how vast my development has been with each skill within the skill set. I began gambling for jujubes on family camping trips. I now consider every opponents tendencies regarding my pre-flop hand selection (which hands to play or fold), how each piece of the range of hands I play reacts to different board textures (the community cards), and how each piece of my opponents’ ranges react to my different actions (betting, checking/calling, raising). I am aware of how each actions alters how my opponents perceive my range. I consider how bet-sizing affects my opponents’ responses to solve for the highest expected value against his entire range. I determine how each of the remaining cards in the deck can affect the action of future streets. Then I plan the hand, considering how each plan affects the expected value of my future plans. Finally, I act. I’ve come a long way from losing candy on family holiday trips. I’ve learned.

As far as I’ve come, I’m still learning. I discover mistakes every week during my review. I know each of my individual opponents may react differently to different bet sizings, but some of my predictions are incorrect. I’ve eliminated mistakes. I can automatically fold Queen-Jack offsuit out of position facing a re-raise pre-flop, when once upon a time I had no idea why calling in this position would be a mistake. I’m learning.

The Golden Nugget

Whatever you’re developing, with enough “experience, work, and learning, your job is eventually complete. A lot of work is needed to get here, and the benefit is well worth it. Now you no longer need to think to be good, and because of that, your mind is free to learn something new.”

Whether it’s driving a car or your own greatest skill set, “there is a limit to how much your mind can think about in a given moment. You can only work on parts of a skill at one time. As a result, it’s critical to know the level of the Conscious Competence Model your skills are in, so you know what to focus on improving. If you no longer need to think to be good, you have more mental space to work on another weakness, and eventually, move it from conscious incompetence to the level of unconscious competence. However, if you fall back into old habits, you clearly need more work, no matter what stage you thought you were at.”

Note: It’s interesting to note flaws and bad habits are skills you’ve learned to the level of unconscious competence. In other words “you’re really good at them, you just no longer want to be.”

In truth, “the learning process has many more small steps than the Conscious Competence Model specifies but as an overall theory, it’s brilliantly simple and incredibly important to your development.” Remember, nobody owns anything forever. You can grow forever, but you have to work for it.


  1. Hey brother! Great article. I like how you went into the Conscious Competence Model in great depth! I’m looking forward to the next article already!

  2. Great read, good job bro, can’t wait to watch you in action with my note pad the next time we face off across the table from each other ……. poker or settlers of catan, all are good.

  3. Ben! Amazing post, thanks so much for sharing. Very well written! I took a lot away from it. Hope to see more blog posts from you in the future. 🙂

  4. Thanks Brian, Mikey, Mark and Jamie! I appreciate all of your comments and I’m excited you’ve enjoyed what I’ve shared.

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