The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


If you’ve read earlier posts you realize that I had the benefit of a loving and supportive family. Yet even in the most wonderful environment it’s inevitable that at least small matters of disagreement will occur.

If mom and I engaged in a disputation and the truth (which she represented) was so obvious vis a vis my position (the non-truth), out of frustration she would pull out the ultimate weapon. That lethal instrument was the statement, “When you’re my age you’ll understand.” That always ended our discussion – mom the winner – me in second place.

Of course, when I was about 10 years old it hit me. As long as mom and I were both alive whether I was 30 or 200 – she would still have the ability to use that weapon of mass destruction. I was doomed.

As years passed I came to realize that what mom was trying to explain to me is that experience is the best teacher – and you can’t get experience until you’ve been around long enough to have it happen to you.

Many years later I had the opportunity to conduct a few educational and motivational seminars around the country. I incorporated “The Fours Stages of Learning” into several of these. To be perfectly frank, I don’t now remember if this was something that I originated or if it was something that I heard somewhere. So if this is someone else’s creation I apologize to the author for my lack of attribution. I just don’t know who you are.

The beauty of “The Four Stages of Learning” is that it applies to everything! Whether that is being a parent, becoming an engineer, learning to needlepoint or whatever. And there are very few things that are as universal in their sweep.

 So allow me to share this with you.

The 1st Stage – Unconscious Incompetence

We’re stupid – in fact we’re so stupid – that we don’t even realize we’re stupid.

 I used to use the following example to describe our growth in the learning process:

 A mother was at home with her seven year old. The mother was very caring but she had one bad habit. She often left the burner going on her gas range. As she was busy vacuuming in the other room her child saw the blue flame and said, “Pretty.” He wanted to play with it and so he put his hand in the flame, burning himself. The mother rushed in to comfort her son and turned off the burner.

 The 2nd Stage – Conscious Incompetence

 We’re still not so smart – but we’re starting to think about things.

Several weeks passed and the mother, because of the incident where her child burned himself, was far more attentive to making sure that the stove-top was off. But one morning, just as she had taken a frying pan off the stove, the phone rang. She put the pan in the sink and rushed out of the kitchen to grab her cell phone which she had left in the living room.

Her son looked at the pretty blue flame – but he remembered his bad burn of a few weeks earlier – and then he thought, “Ooh, there’s that pretty blue flame again. But the last time I tried to play with it it hurt me. But that was in the afternoon. This is the morning. Let’s see what happens.”

Of course he experienced the same result as the first time – a nasty burn. But he had moved to the second stage of learning.

 The 3rd Stage – Conscious Competence

We’re beginning to see the lay of the land – but it’s not automatic and requires effort.

A month or so passed. Very rarely did the mother leave the burners going – but even when she did her son remembered his two bad experiences and was not tempted to put his hand in the flame. One night his parents were going out and he was left in the care of a sitter. She made some popcorn, had poured it into a bowl and was going to settle in with some homework. But she left the flame going. The little boy thought about the situation as he sat on his chair alone in the kitchen.

 “I burned myself once in the afternoon and once in the morning. But that was when mommy left the flame on. I wonder if it would still hurt me because mommy didn’t leave it on – my sitter did.” So once again he tried to play with the flame – burning himself a third time.

 (He had slipped back to the 2nd stage – a normal phenomenon – because we only seem to learn with the reinforcement of making repeated mistakes). 

The 4th Stage – Unconscious Competence

Eureka! I get it. No thinking necessary. It’s automatic.

They say the third time’s the charm. Although his mother left the flame going from time to time, the little boy wasn’t tempted to play with “the pretty blue flame”. He had learned his lesson. And for the rest of his life he never again considered putting his hand in the fire.

He was Unconsciously Competent.

As the story illustrates, it’s not a simple path on the road to intellectual Nirvana. The road is filled with stumbling blocks. Sometimes we make forward progress – and sometimes we fall back to an earlier stage of our trek. Sadly, there are many who never begin the journey.

We live in what I like to call “The Age of Impatience”. 

We are upset that we can’t download the latest book in under two minutes – while earlier generations had to wait days or weeks for it to show up in the bookstore or public library.

 We missed joining our friends at the mall because the 4G network was running a little slow.

 We refuse to let time take its course, enriching our lives with the experiences that make us who we can become. We want it all so fast – and we want it now.

 We have access to so much information – yet so little knowledge.

 So thanks, mom. I hope you were right and that when I’m your age – I really do understand.



  1. I love this! Especially the “stupid” part. hahah. A shame so many never learn their way out of that phase. giggles. thank you for your writings.

  2. Thanks so much for taking your time to read them.

  3. Isn’t it amazing how one idea can lead us to another – if we only keep our minds open.

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