The Four Quadrants to Knowing

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Let the journey begin.

In today’s fast-paced world, continuous learning and growth are essential for personal and professional growth and success.

When you’re faced with a new skill, responsibility,  topic or anything new you can feel blindsided by not knowing and with the challenges of becoming good at it.


However, the journey toward skill competency and eventual mastery can be overwhelming and confusing.  The natural uncertainty and doubt about the learning tasks ahead can start to take root in our minds and often a sense of stress anxiety or fear, can take hold.


That’s where the concept and principles of the Four Quadrants to Knowing comes in.


Based on Abraham Maslow’s theory of the “Four Stages of Learning,” published in 1943, the Four Quadrants offer a framework and guide for you to understand and navigate the process of learning, growth and moving from incompetence to competence. 

As the image above depicts, the Four Quadrants to Knowing are: 

  1. Unconsciously Incompetent – You don’t know you don’t know.
  2. Consciously Incompetent – You know you don’t know.  
  3. Consciously Competent – You believe you know.
  4. Unconsciously Competent – You Know!

A personal perspective on the Four Quadrants:

My first exposure to the concept and principles of the Four Quadrants to Knowing was over 25 years ago, and, to put it mildly, it changed my perspective on learning, personal growth and those times when I justed wanted to give up.


Before discovering this valuable process, I would beat myself up mentally if I didn’t know the answer to a topic or got blindsided by not knowing something in my area of expertise. Being “caught” off guard not knowing, or trying to pretend I did, could derail my focus, and I would rerun the event over and over in my head.


But, after the principles of the Four Quadrants took hold, I was freed from this negative cycle, and I began to look forward to opportunities where I could say, “I didn’t know that, but I’m excited because now I want to learn,” or “it’s a great day, I just learned something I didn’t know.”


This shift in attitude and perspective was empowering. From then on, I engage and approach every opportunity where I am unconsciously incompetent with the mindset of curiosity and potential. It allows me to also understand where on the competence spectrum I want to be and how to get there. 


This is important; in all the things we must learn in our lives, we don’t have to be unconsciously competent in everyone. Becoming consciously competent in many areas is a significant milestone to achieve. This realization takes the pressure off the road ahead and enables a more explicit focus on what matters and why on your learning journey. 


This blog post will explore the Four Quadrants and provide actionable tips and strategies for navigating each stage from incompetence to mastery.


We’ll look at the Four Quadrants as a framework, and how it can be used as a guide for navigating the knowledge journeys, we all must take to achieve our personal and professional aspirations.


Let’s start on this journey to knowing now.  

The Journey Through the Four Quadrants to Knowing

Quadrant 1: Unconsciously Incompetent - You Don't Know What You Don't Know

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates

The Four Quadrants starts with being unconsciously incompetent within in a topic or skill. This is the stage where you are unaware of your lack of knowledge and competence about a particular skill or subject. You may not even realize that you don’t know something, or you may assume that you already have a good grasp on the topic.


This lack of internal awareness of incompetence, knowledge gaps or capabilities may begin to be realized by making mistakes, misunderstanding without realizing it, getting called out in a meeting or presentation or being tasked with new responsibilities.


The challenge of being unconsciously incompetent is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You may make assumptions or rely on incomplete or incorrect information, which can lead to poor decisions, ineffective actions and a drop in “expected” performance.


Being unconsciously incompetent can also be mentally challenging because of the feelings of uncertainty and doubt, or the daunting feeling that you don’t know where or how to start becoming competent. This can negatively impact one’s self-image and confidence.


But this stage also provides a positive opportunity for awareness, learning, self-empowerment, growth and achievement.


By becoming aware and owning that you don’t know the topic or skill and that you are in fact unconsciously incompetent, can be incredibly freeing. This can also act as a catalyst to seek out learning resources, new experiences and mentors to help you develop and improve toward competence.

Here are some tips for identifying and addressing areas where you may be unconsciously incompetent:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit when you don’t know something.
  • Seek feedback from trusted colleagues, mentors or experts in the topic or field you’re learning.
  • Take an assessment or test to evaluate your knowledge and skills in a particular area.
  • Be open to learning from all sources possible and seeking out new knowledge and skill resources.
  • Observe and learn from others who excel in the area you want to improve your competence in.

By following these tips, you can begin to identify additional areas where you may be unconsciously incompetent. These discoveries and your awareness continues your learning journey into the next quadrant, consciously incompetent. Here you will start taking steps towards skill competency and, if you decide, eventual topic mastery. 

Quadrant 2: Consciously Incompetent - You Know What You Don't Know

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson Mandela

Being consciously incompetent is simply being aware and acknowledging that you lack knowledge and experience about a particular skill or subject and that your competence level is currently low.


As you progress through this quadrant, you seek out and apply multiple learning resources to fill knowledge holes. You engage mentors to help with the knowledge transfer to help you learn and gain experience. You are actively practicing and applying what you’re learning in real-time and while you still make mistakes or struggle with certain concepts, you are consciously aware of where you are on the journey and are actively working to improve your competence.


Now, there will be times when you may feel like you’re not making progress, that the learning curve is too steep, or that you’re not capable or “good enough” to succeed. At times you may feel overwhelmed or discouraged by the steepness of the learning curve, or of not “getting it” despite all the efforts you’ve put in so thoughts of stopping and giving up are in your head.


This phase is normal and part of the process of growth. By facing and owning your topic or skill competence level head-on and actively working to learn and improve your levels of competence, you can overcome the inevitable learning curve challenges and inevitable setbacks to keep moving forward.

Here are some tips for staying motivated and focused when learning something new or difficult:

  • “Own” your state of incompetence with an attitude and mindset of “I’m learning”.  

  • Keep a positive attitude and focus on the benefits, to you, of learning, improving and gaining competence.

  • Surround yourself with supportive and encouraging people.

  • Set clear and achievable learning goals and milestones for yourself.

  • Reward yourself for small successes, achievements and progress forward.  

By embracing and owning that you are currently consciously incompetent and staying motivated and focused, you can overcome the inevitable challenges that are an essential part of the personal and professional journey of learning, growth and acquiring competence.

Incompetence to Competence: Learning Curves and Perseverance

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

It’s important to understand that progress, growth and improvement are rarely linear processes. There will always be situations when we don’t know something and times when multiple learning curves must be climbed and overcome throughout our lives.


Knowing that moving from incompetent to competent can be a daunting journey, there will be steep learning curves throughout, and that we will be faced with challenges and setbacks enables us to “own” the process. This is empowering and can mitigate the natural feelings of being discouraged and disillusioned that can arise or if the thoughts of quitting and abandoning our journey float around in our heads.


Something I learned years ago: taking time to reflect and focus on “why this journey matters – to me” can free us from the internal feelings of uncertainty and doubt about accomplishing our goals of becoming competent. This becomes the catalyst to a mindset of perseverance which fuels our internal commitment to overcome obstacles and crash through roadblocks on the journey to achieving our competence goals. 


Perseverance is the determination to continue pushing forward, even when the going gets tough. It’s the willingness to go deeper and keep trying, even without seeing immediate results. And it’s the belief that the effort you’re putting in will ultimately lead to success.


Harnessing the power of inner perseverance and keeping the answer to “why this matters” top of our minds enables us to successfully move forward to becoming competent.   

Here are some tips for developing perseverance and maintaining focus as you progress from being incompetent to becoming competent:

  • Set “why becoming competent matters to me” as a mindset. This is your self-value statement and will give you reinforcement when inevitable learning curve challenges arrive.   
  • Competence is a spectrum; identify where you are on your topic or skill competence spectrum.  
  • Take time to reflect on past journeys, what you learned and how you have grown in other areas of your personal and professional life.
  • Break down the task or skill into smaller, manageable chunks which will make it less overwhelming and help you focus on reaching one milestone at a time.
  • Climbing over learning curves doesn’t have to be a solo journey, reach out for support and guidance from others, such as colleagues, a manager, mentors or coaches who can provide clarity and perspectives that we sometimes can’t see.

Quadrant 3: Consciously Competent - You Believe You Know

“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” – Aldous Huxley

You’ve reached the stage of being consciously competent, and like quadrant 2, you will spend a fair amount of time in this space. In fact, on your many knowledge journeys, you will devote a lot of time between the two “conscious” quadrants.


Being consciously competent is when you have learned skills and acquired the knowledge and ability to perform a task or activity efficiently and effectively.


But, you are still learning and developing your topic competence so consistent practice and effort are required to improve and maintain your levels of competence. You’re confidence and capabilities are increasing rapidly but there are still knowledge and skill areas that require further development and honing.

Here are some tips for maintaining focus and motivation as you progress through the stage of conscious competence:

  • Set goals for continued learning and improvement.
  • Seek out new challenges and learning opportunities.
  • Take breaks and reward yourself for your efforts.
  •  Surround yourself with like-minded people who are also focused on learning and improvement. 

The challenge of conscious competence is maintaining focus and motivation to continue practicing and learning. It can be easy to let your new skills and knowledge slide and stop challenging yourself to become fully competent in the craft or topic, especially if you’re busy with other priorities. But by focusing on your goals and practicing and learning, you can maintain and improve your competence, stay ahead in your field, and continue the journey to the final quadrant and topic mastery.  

Quadrant 4: Unconsciously Competent - You Know!

“Patience, my friend. Once again, I say, Patience.

In an era ‘plagued’ with speed, doggedness of character and drudgery of persistence are the only guarantees to mastery.” – Ufuoma Apoki

You have achieved Mastery.

You’ve reached the final quadrant in a long journey of learning and growth you are unconsciously competent.


This is the stage where you have mastered a skill or subject to the point where it becomes second nature, and you can apply it effectively and efficiently without consciously thinking about it.


An example of unconscious competence is riding a bike. Once you know how to ride a bike, you always know how to ride a bike. There is no future learning curve on how to ride a bike. Even if you haven’t ridden a bike in years, all it takes is getting on, flexing some muscle memory and off you go. That’s unconscious competence. 


The challenge of being unconsciously competent is the need to maintain motivation to continue learning and improving where you are, especially when you’ve reached a high level of mastery. It can be easy to become complacent or to let your skills and knowledge become stagnant, especially if you’re busy with other priorities.


But by continuing to practice and challenge yourself, you can maintain and improve your knowledge and capabilities beyond where they are today. 

Here are some tips for maintaining growth focus as you become of unconsciously competent:

  • Mentoring or teaching others in your area of expertise will further hone your skills and knowledge.
  • Set new goals for continued learning and improvement which can help you to stay focused and motivated to continue to grow and develop.
  • Seek out challenges and learning opportunities in complementary subjects or skill areas to deepen your craft knowledge.
  • Continue to acknowledge and reward yourself for your efforts.

By maintaining focus, self-motivation and embracing new learning opportunities, you will continue to grow and evolve as a person and in your professional life.

The Perpetual Journey of Learning and Growth

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” – Josh Waitzkin

The journey through the Four Quadrants is ongoing, and it is essential to remember that you will always be faced with new learning opportunities and times when you don’t know you don’t know. 


Embrace and look for these opportunities to grow and  challenge yourself.  Embracing knowledge and competence challenges with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn,  grow and achieve is crucial.


It is essential to have a personal growth mindset, which is the belief that abilities, competence and intelligence can be learned and developed through focus, dedication, work and persistence.


The value and positive impact on yourself by knowing you can, in time, become competent in a topic, skill or subject cannot be understated

All this said it’s important to remember that the journey to mastery is a long one, but with consistent effort, determination and perseverance, you can achieve it.


Building personal and professional mental resiliency and self-efficacy is also essential. These will allow you to overcome challenges and bounce back from setbacks, enabling you to thrive in the face of adversity.

Here are some tips for maintaining focus and motivation as you reach the stage of unconscious competence:

  • Embrace new learning opportunities with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and grow
  • Apply and use what you’ve learned to avoid your knowledge becoming stale and irrelevant. 
  • Belief in the power of consistent effort, determination and perseverance to achieve and maintain competency.
  • Learning and knowledge acquisition build personal and professional resiliency and self-efficacy. 
  • Continuously seek out new challenges and learning opportunities.

The benefits of continuous learning and growth includes; increased confidence, skill proficiency, resiliency, development of self-efficacy and increased success to name a few. With your capacity and ability to continuously learn and positive approach to self-growth, you can better adapt to the ever-changing business landscape, stay ahead of the curve, and ultimately achieve your aspirations.


“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

In conclusion, the Four Quadrants to Knowing is a powerful tool for guiding us on the journey of continuous learning, growth and becoming competent in new areas of our lives.


It emphasizes the importance of accepting that you will not know everything and that this can be uncomfortable. But, with the Four Quadrants as a guide, you can embrace those moments with anticipation and say, “It’s a good day; I learned something I didn’t know, and now that I know, I want to learn about it.”.


The journey starts with becoming aware of areas where you are Unconsciously Incompetent about something. As you move through the quadrants, you will become Consciously Incompetent, Consciously Competent, and ultimately Unconsciously Competent.


The skill mastery that comes with achieving unconscious competence instills confidence, proficiency, and self-efficacy. It allows individuals to perform tasks or activities with ease and without conscious effort, leading to increased productivity, better performance, and ultimately success in their personal and professional lives.


We encourage readers to reflect on the areas of their knowledge journeys where the Four Quadrants can be applied and consider areas where they may be unconsciously incompetent or where they can continue to grow and improve.


We also encourage readers to seek out opportunities to develop and hone their knowledge by mentoring or teaching their skills to help and guide others as they work their way through their knowledge journeys in the areas of your expertise.