The Unconsciously Competent Freelancer

unconsciously competentBy Jake Poinier

Peter Bowerman wrote a thought-provoking post the other day at his Well-Fed Writer blog: One Big Reason Why Commercial Writing Pays Better and Resists “Off-Shoring” (and Why This Other Kind of Writing Doesn’t…) It’s worth reading the whole thing, but it was actually the comments that sparked me to write this riff on his thoughts—which revolved around epiphanies.

If you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, or even in semi-serious athletics, you’ve probably heard of a psychological principle called “The Four Stages of Competence.” Briefly, they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know how to do something, and you don’t recognize it.
  2. Conscious incompetence: You understand that you have a deficit, but you still don’t know how to do it.
  3. Conscious competence: You know how to do something, but it takes a concerted effort.
  4. Unconscious competence: You understand something so well that it’s second nature, and you can even teach it to someone else.

I recognize all of those learning steps in my progress as a freelancer. I suspect you do, too. But what is interesting to me is understanding how differently the writing side and business side evolved. As someone who’d written for magazines, PR and marketing/advertising firms, I estimate I was somewhere in stages 3-4 on the wordcraft end of things when I left my corporate job.

I was firmly in stage 1, however, when it came to running a business. Of course, I had *experience* in various businesses and industries for 10 years, and even exposure to financials and sales calls with people who were at stage 4.

But there is no replacement for time and hard knocks from entrepreneurship—and shoring up the business side is paramount, even if you’re a stage 4 writer, editor or graphic designer. In fact, Malcom Gladwell, author of Outliers, defined a “10,000-hour rule” as a specific timeline for success in a pursuit. In case you want the math, the road to becoming an unconsciously competent freelancer will take about 5 years at 40 hours a week. And it’s worth every minute.

Freelancers: When you assess your own career, what stage are you in on the creative side? On the business side?

Jake Poinier runs Boomvang Creative Group and blogs as Dr. Freelance. His most recent post was “Brochure writing and playing nice.”

Image courtesy of cobrasoft.

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