Consciously Incompetent

At the moment I am participating in Nanowrimo. If you aren’t aware, this is basically a novel writing marathon that takes place every year in November. I have participated once before and did my own writing month not in November last year. This year has been a much different experience from the two previous times. Because I am FAILING at it!

Where before I felt like I was accomplishing something and achieving something I had always desired to do, this year I am hitting a wall every time I sit down to write.

The last week I have really struggled with why this is happening. I have wondered whether it is embarrassment or shame that is holding me back. Or perhaps that I have two young boys that suck up much of my creative energy. But I had two little boys last year so that hasn’t changed. The only thing I could think of was that I have read a bunch of books on editing and writing since the last time I wrote. And I am now convinced that the education is making all the difference. As in it is really messing up my ability to write.

I am not sure where this comes from originally, but I have heard many different places about the competence progression. I’m sure I could look it up, but it doesn’t really matter to me at the moment. Anyway, the progression looks like this:

Unconsciously Incompetent –> Consciously Incompetent –> Consciously Competent –> Unconscious Competence

Further in I will abbreviate come of these as follows: UI –> CI –> CC –> UC

Since the last time I wrote a novel just a year ago, I have spent many hours educating myself about editing, story craft, story structure, book publishing, and a whole host of other things. And I had not really considered that those very things could hinder me from writing.

The answer is of course that they are. I am now much more aware of how much I don’t know about writing. But more than that, even of what I know, I can perform only a small percentage.

Let’s say that before I knew 10 out of 100 of everything there was to know about writing and that when I wrote, I would be able to instinctively follow 90% of what I knew. Or what I wrote came out about 90% of what I thought it could be and 9% of what a skilled author could do. That was hard for my perfectionism to swallow. But not nearly so hard as now.

So let’s slide my concept of the max writing level to 1000. I probably know six times more than I did last year. So now I know 60/1000, but can only perform at 30/60. So while I have learned a lot in the last year, my performance level has dropped from a 90% to a 50%. Add this to the fact that the way I feel is 30/1000.

So why bother writing if I am only going to put out a 3% level performance of what I am vaguely aware I could be someday if I devoted my entire life to writing? Well because that whole perspective is horrendously wrong!

First of all, all that has happened is that I have moved from UI to CI. Which is a huge improvement. Without that move, I would be wallowing in UI forever. While that has been a perfectly fine place to be for a while in my life, it is no longer acceptable. So CI it is.

That said, I rarely find myself in CI. Historically anything that has made me feel incompetent is something I run away from and avoid. And when I do feel incompetent, I feel ashamed. I think I have this idea that I will always show up as competent in life. So I avoid failure. But more than that, I avoid any situation in which someone might discover my ignorance.

So I don’t have many tools in my toolbox to cope with being CI, because I avoid it so much. So how to cope with CI?

Well first of all, perspective is critical. The wrong perspective is what has kept me from writing. So that was a fail. But perhaps a perspective shift can fix it again. From the previous example, I was performing at a 3% level. That is not very encouraging. But from the same data, I have improved my writing skill by three times in the last year from 10 to 30. While this may be a bit of a stretch, I don’t think it is terribly far off. I would say 300% improvement in any skill over the course of a year is well worth celebrating. So what if it isn’t 1000? I can’t imagine there are very many 1000 level writers out there, if any. So who am I comparing myself against anyway? Additionally, every 1000 level author out there was most likely a 30 at one point in their career. So I am going to quit now at 30 because I’m not instantly at 1000?

One last bit of perspective shift. My wife asked me if I was highly successful with my writing such that I became a full peer of some of my favorite authors if I would feel like a good writer then. And my answer was not necessarily. Because I am my own worst critic. So I could still disappoint myself if I didn’t achieve my own expectations. What a terrible place to be. Basically because of my own expectations, I can never win. In the journaling exercise I did to try to figure all this out, I wrote one line that stood out to me above all the others. So with it I will end my level 30 discourse on perspective shifts.

The biggest failure I could experience is to keep all my ideas to myself.

One thought on “Consciously Incompetent

  1. Hmm… I wonder what UC and CC feel like?
    We all get hung up on stuff like this. It’s so easy to feel like not enough, to assume we should just quit trying because we will probably fail. I’m excited to hear more about your writing!


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