I don’t know what I don’t know.

Now that I’m finally making more friends among the expat community, it’s come to my attention that there are so many layers to the Abu Dhabi and expat experience that I have no idea what kind of roller coaster ride has begun. It got me thinking about the Conscious Competence model that I learned in teacher school, wherein the stages of learning a new skill are articulated:

Unconscious incompetence

As an unconscious incompetent, you do not know what you do not know. You are lack knowledge and skills in the area in question and are unaware of this lack.

In this state, where you can exist for a very long time, you are not as competent as one or more of:

  • You think you are
  • You actually could be
  • Other, more competent people

In this state, you may be in one of two positions. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and you may well be happily naive, not realizing that you are not competent.

You also may be in a faking state, where you believe you are competent, and either do not realize that you are in this state or are covering up your incompetence (in which state you may be in the next stage).

Conscious incompetence

As a conscious incompetent, you realize that you are not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or thought you could be.

The transition to this state from being unconsciously incompetent can be a shocking and sudden realization, for example when you meet others who are clearly more competent than you, or when a friend holds up a metaphorical mirror to your real ability.

You can also exist in this state for a long time, depending on factors such as your determination to learn and the real extent to which you accept your incompetence.

Conscious competence

Becoming consciously competent often takes a while, as you steadily learn about the new area, either through experience or more formal learning. This process can go in fits and starts as you learn, forget, plateau and start anew.

The more complex the new area and the less talent you have for it, the longer this will take. The good news is that many people have achieved remarkable feats of learning through sheer persistence.

Unconscious competence

Eventually you reach a point where you no longer have to think about what you are doing, and are competent without the significant effort that characterizes the state of conscious competence.

Source: Changing Minds.Org

I’ve written a little bit about the things I’ve struggled to learn how to do here in Abu Dhabi, and those are things that fall under the category of “conscious incompetence” – I am aware that I don’t know how to pay my gas bill, for example, and have to make some effort to develop that skill. I don’t know how to navigate Abu Dhabi that well. I couldn’t program a stereo system to save my life and I’m terrible at Sudoku and Crossword puzzles. I’ve gotten quite comfortable with the things I know I don’t have a natural talent to perform and take on my challenges judiciously.

But now it’s more obvious to me than ever that there is a whole desert, region, continent, world of knowledge and skill of which I was totally unaware before living somewhere other than my home country. Not that it’s all about me (wait a minute, yes it is – my blog, my rules) but it was pointed out to me that Americans are always the first to assume they’re the center of the universe in all affairs, personal and political. I’ve heard this before, but this time it really sank in a deeper recess of my brainpan: It has never been about me, but I’ve lived in a bubble that hasn’t challenged me to think otherwise.

What other Americanisms, world views, prejudices, and bias are hiding in my daily thoughts and actions? What good will moving from blissful ignorance to uncomfortable awareness of my myopic knowledge and skills create? I can only hope something good. Given that I’m about as non-elitist as they come, I love learning new things, and community is one of the most important things to me, I want to embrace my new society and find a comfortable way to call Abu Dhabi, UAE home. Knowing that many aren’t that interested in Americans because of our typically narrow world view makes my job all the more challenging. I won’t force myself on anyone who isn’t interested in friendship. As I settle into making friends, I’m sure the patient ones will enlighten me and I’ll be able to take my time discovering what it is I’d like to move from the ignorance column to the competence column.


6 thoughts on “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

  1. Michele, I’ve been a lurker for a while, but I admire your bravery in going for the expat life. I’ve been an expat (on and off) for over 20 years, and the first time living overseas is always the hardest. As you explained so well, Americans don’t realize the bubble we live in until we leave home and see our nation through “foreign” viewpoints. It’s a real eye-opener, and it’s amazing how incompetent we can feel, for a long time…trust me, it gets both better and worse, but the expat life is never boring.

  2. Honey, I know Americans who never really leave North America, or when they do leave they travel insular style (five star tours etc), we all know those people, they are also in Canada…but I also know that the Americans I have met here are all without exception, the kindest warmest most open minded people on the island, perhaps on Earth. They travel, they know, they volunteer, give back, step up, are kinder than necessary, and unfortunately they also frequently need to answer some pointed questions about “why do Americans do this…etc” . It is unfortunate that these worldly and wise people feel they need to answer these pointed questions. I love Americans in the Middle East! (And many everywhere else including America.) Peace, Tracy

  3. I was kind of blown away by the statement that you hadn’t been in a situation that challenged you to think otherwise. Sometimes it takes something huge (like moving overseas) to become conscious of those inner things. Now I’m wondering what I don’t know that I think I know. Never mind, I know everything.

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