Move Through The Stages Of Transformation.


What if becoming unconscious was part of the process of becoming conscious? Well according to my research and personal experience it is. Here is a proven strategy to guide you on your road to achieving successful transformation in any area of your life. I call it Moving Through the Stages of Transformation.

One of the reasons that making changes in our lives can be difficult and scary is because we are moving into new, uncharted areas of our lives. If we just knew how it was all going to turn out it would not trigger so much anxiety. Well, you can. Not specifically-because I am not clairvoyant, but you can in a general sense by understanding the stages of transformation that you are progressing through.  

Through my research and observation I have noticed that the process of change involves a consistent four-stage pattern of development. You will experience and observe this characteristic pattern in your personal life as well as other domains of family, church, business organization and community. The four stages of transformation act as guideposts and milestones for your growth. We pass through these four stages every time we learn something new. By breaking this process down into discernable stages you have a better awareness of what you are going through and can be more patient with yourself as you develop. In my international consulting work I utilize these stages for the CEOs and organizations that they represent. They also apply to any area of learning and growth in our personal lives. The stages are:



As I describe this process, reflect upon your own life, and how you too have gone through these stages of transformation many times, even though you may not have had this model to describe your experience. Think of times when you have learned something new, like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport. I will explain these stages using my personal experience of learning the sport of whitewater kayaking.

1. Unconscious Incompetence—This first stage of transformation is known as unconscious incompetence. This stage is characterized by our lack of awareness. This stage is something that all of us are experiencing all the time--in different areas of our lives. Specifically, we are not good at something, but we don’t even know that we are not good at it until we have some sort of an experience which brings it to our attention.  

When I was a young adult growing up in Colorado I fell in love with outdoor sports. Kayaking was one of those sports I always wanted to try, and since I was good at skiing and other sports, I figured that I had the balance skills that would transfer to this new sport and allow me to pick up kayaking rather effortlessly. I started out learning to do an Eskimo roll in the pool by taking a class in college. I had been on plenty of whitewater rafting trips and watched experienced boaters, so I figured I had progressed with proficiency. Bring on the river I thought, after all, how difficult could this be?  I saw people kayaking all the time and figured I could do the same. (Uh-Oh…Welcome to unconscious incompetence).   

2. Conscious Incompetence—This next stage of transformation is known as conscious incompetence. This is our wake up call.  This is where we experience the pain of cognitive dissonance—the huge gap between our perceptions of ourselves and the reality of the feedback we are receiving from other people or the environment. In essence, we become aware that we have a lot to learn.

The beginning kayak class always ends with an actual outing on the river. After all, this is why we all spent time practicing in the pool. We had our basic paddling and rolling skills down, so the river couldn’t be that difficult could it? All of us in the class were so excited when we finally got to the put-in. We put on our helmets, life jackets, and other gear and shoved off into the current.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that the river was a completely different environment. The current grabbed our boats and paddles and started doing crazy things to us. We were flipped over, slammed into rocks and forgot how to roll in the frigid waters. Our day ended with us all wet, cold, and with bloody shins from swimming boulder-filled rapids. I also had a profound respect for the instructors who not only paddled the river with ease, but also rescued all of us and our equipment that was floating all over the river. I had moved from a stage in my thinking that I would be able to kayak like the people I often saw (unconscious incompetence) into a realization of just how steep the learning curve that was in front of my becoming a skilled whitewater kayaker (conscious incompetence). Now I had to choose to develop skills where before I thought I had already arrived.  Let the work begin.

3. Conscious Competence—By now, if we don’t become discouraged and give up because of the awareness of our incompetence, we have the opportunity to enter into the next stage of transformation which I call conscious competence. We now realize the skills we need to acquire in order to become competent. By dedicating ourselves to the long, slow process of working on skills, we actually become competent. Irrespective of what we are trying to learn, there is still no substitute for the hard work of practice, practice, practice. But the good news is that it is now paying off. With our full attention, our practice pays off and we have moments where we experience success and that reinforcement is what keeps us going. Our skills are still not second nature to us as we soon realize if we let our mind wander during our newly developed golf swing or hit an off note on the guitar. But the good news is that when we concentrate with our full attention, we experience success. We have developed a conscious competence.

In my kayaking example, I swallowed my pride and returned to the river again and again. One thing that I remember is that I didn’t expect it to be easy.  In fact, my goals had completely changed. Instead of having this vague image of instantly being an expert kayaker, I had specific skills I was going to practice. I would work on catching eddy currents behind boulders and maneuvering through big whitewater rapids without tipping over and successfully hitting my Eskimo rolls when the big waves knocked me over.

Years went by and I continued to practice my skills and progressed to bigger rivers, with more complex rapids. I realized that if I put my mind to it I could accomplish a certain move or skill. Yet, there were those times when I would become too relaxed and the river would tip me over, hold me under and remind me that I had to stay conscious about what I was doing. It wasn’t yet second nature.

4. Unconscious competence—Regular practice of our skills leads us to the desirable stage of why we chose to learn something new in the first place. This is the vision we had when we first started to learn our new profession, skill or life change. With continued investments in conscious skill development we see results. At some point we realize that there is an effortless quality to our performance. Athletes and musicians describe this experience as being in the zone—where everything seems to just come together. In fact, they will often talk about how thinking about it too much actually gets in their way. Some of the most effortless performances occur without conscious effort. It is then that we enter the final stage of transformation-- unconscious competence.  

My years of kayaking turned into decades of experience.  As I look back I have many moments of being in the zone where I felt a sense of freedom and comfort with the river.  One trip sticks out above the rest because it was the pinnacle of what I had been training for—a 28 day trip on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  

Kayaking “The Grand” is a benchmark of achievement in the whitewater world. The dedication and mixture of river, trip planning, first aid, and kayaking skills needed to successfully navigate some of the biggest waves in the United States will always stick out in my mind. One of the things that is most monumental for me however, is my awareness of achieving my vision of why I started to kayak in the first place. I remember many moments of surfing waves or navigating huge rapids with ease, often humming a tune or letting out a “ye-haw” yell—and I was doing it without thinking about it. I had become unconsciously competent.  

Life is about transformation. The process of change is much less frightening when we are able to perceive where we are at in the process. I have found that having this perspective allows me to rest easier as I face the unknown. Being fully alive really is about learning, growing and changing. I hope you can relax and be patient with yourself with whatever challenges you are facing in your life by noticing how you are moving through these four stages of transformation.

STRATEGIES: Moving Through the Stages of Transformation

1. Reflect on a time when you learned a new sport or skill. What was it like as you were learning? How did you perceive yourself and the world as you moved through the four different stages?

2. What are the current challenges that you are facing in your life? How could you apply these four stages of transformation to these challenges?  

3. Do you feel stuck in an area of your life? How could you perceive this stuck area as an opportunity for you to move through the four stages of transformation? How can you define your “stuck spot” as the point of beginning a new area of unconscious incompetence in your life?  

4. Even areas of competence in our lives can become stale if we are not challenging ourselves and learning something new.  Look at great athletes like golfer Tiger Woods who is a model of constantly improving his game by moving through these stages of transformation. Are there areas in your life where you have become complacent or feel stale?

5. How can you re-enter that stage of unconscious incompetence in areas of your life where you feel consciously competent?

6. Visualize how you can use your resilience and past experience of moving through these four stages for whatever you are currently facing. Your past success in navigating through these stages can be your source of competence for continuing through the process.

7. Map out the different domains of your life and the note the stages of where you currently are. How can you seek coaching, support or assistance to move toward your next stage?  

(Photo -

The Science of the Positive™ is a registered trademark of The Montana Institute, LLC.  All rights are protected.