Your Courage to Be Vulnerable is Your Ticket to Becoming Your Best Self

by Certified Life Coach Alissa Gauger, MBA

“I should be able to figure this out,” I tell myself sternly, sitting on my horse Belle as part of a training clinic in the middle of a round fenced-in area surrounded by people who know more about riding than me. I was intensely trying to understand what the instructor was telling me as he told me to ask my horse to pick her right foot up in the air, put it down, and then shift to picking her left foot up in the air. The heat and humidity of the day was just peaking at 88 degrees as sweat dripped out from under my helmet and ran down my face.

You see, last week I spent five straight days grappling with something called “conscious incompetence.” Before this new awareness, I was in a state of “not knowing what I don’t know” in many areas with riding my horse called “unconscious incompetence.” Finding out what you don’t know, watching yourself struggling and not knowing how to fix it is incredibly uncomfortable!

I could feel the stress rise up in my body and the sun beat down on me. I wracked my brain for ideas and only drew a blank. Around me I watched other horses marching with their front legs up and down up and down as their riders asked them to do. I felt out of place, unqualified and horribly uncomfortable in this moment. As a human, I think that this stage of learning is one of our more excruciating mental states! According to a learning model called “Four Stages of Competence", developed by Gordon Training International in the 1970s, humans go through several psychological states as we learn.

The Four Stages of Competence

Unconscious incompetence: we don’t know what we don’t know and can’t recognize it. Conscious incompetence: we find out that we have something that is not working and do not yet have the skills to do anything about it. Making mistakes is important to moving  through this stage. Conscious competence: we now understand what we don’t know something and can have the ability to do something about it as long as we can really concentrate. Unconscious competence: we have practiced the new skill so many times that it becomes natural and easy.

In that moment of the horse clinic, I had just gone from unconscious incompetence (no clue about horse marching) to conscious incompetence (oh crap! I have no clue about horse marching and can’t do a thing about it! Argh.) Relaxing into this universal human experience of learning is vital to allowing us to change as human beings and really grow into our full potential. Do you allow yourself to be wrong, make mistakes, feel dumb, fail, get back up and try again? If you are not experiencing this daily, you are likely missing out on some major growth opportunities that can be gained but allowing yourself to play to just an inch or two past your edge.

"Why do this to myself?” you might be wondering. Here’s why: "I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can't have both. Not at the same time,” writes Brené Brown in her new book “Rising Strong—The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.” Brown is an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Why? Because if you want to maximize who you really are and live an authentic, full life then this really is the path you walk if you want to grow!

"When it comes to human behavior, emotions, and thinking, the adage “The more I learn, the less I know” is right on,” Brown writes. If you look at your practice through this lens, are you really allowing yourself to embrace conscious incompetence? Are you willing to really suck at trying something because it’s just worth it? And, by the way, it’s not a one-time deal. You will go through these four stages over and over again as you grow. And each time you will build upon what you learned.

Here are some examples: - Announce in a Builder meeting that you are committed to going for MDRT/Lives Leaders Summit/Forum THIS YEAR - Step up into a leadership position that intimidates you - Tell your mentor you don’t know how to do something that you feel like you “should” know - Sign up for the CFP or other designation - Risk losing a client by telling them what they need to hear

Choose something right now that you are willing to give yourself permission to do badly at—to even fail at or look bad attempting. Really commit to it, knowing that learning how to find a new kind of comfort in discomfort is a vital skill if you plan to grow. "Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage,” writes Brown.

Find the courage to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. By the way, my horse Belle and I still don’t know how to actually march, but we are willing to do it badly. Very, very badly! We will go through this with marching and so many more things that my horse and I will experience on our journey together. I have come to welcome the unsettling sensation of entering this stage now knowing with certainty that when I lean into it I come out on the other side changed every time. See you on the other side!

Coaching Tip The key to mastering the four stages of competence is breaking your goals down into itty, bitty, teeny, tiny steps. Our human tendency is to set up big steps such as “I will get in shape” or “I will write Forum!” These huge statements set us up to lose and feel badly about it. Find the smallest, most ridiculously easy step in the direction of the goal and start there. Then find the next one. This keeps you finding the discomfort necessary to be consciously incompetent without pushing past your comfort threshold so badly that you suffer a setback.