Why Feeling Incompetent Is All Part Of The Career Change Process – And What To Do About It


When the new skills you need to change career don't come smoothly, it's easy to feel like a failure or want to give up. Gwen Knowles draws on a mixture of psychology and neuroscience to show you how to overcome the discomfort.

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

It’s a well-known adage, but learning new skills and trying new things can be incredibly daunting.

And we all know that knowing what you’re supposed to do and actually doing it are two very different things.

Making a career transition into your ideal job or your own business is an experiential learning process. By this I mean that in order to get from A to B you’ll need to learn lots of new skills, and you'll only learn them by experiencing them.

Take networking, for example. You can read about how to network to make useful contacts, or get advice from friends and mentors on how to network successfully, but you’ll only truly learn how to network 'your way' by going out and actually doing it.

What's the new skill or behaviour you're learning for your career transition that feels daunting right now? The one that makes you feel physically uncomfortable, or think 'I can't do that'?

Why is there such resistance? And what can you do to overcome it and keep moving forward?

The four stages of learning

There are always four stages you go through when you learn something new. These are often called the four stages of competence.

Stage 1: When you try a new skill or activity for the first time, you don't know how to do it right, and you can't see what you are doing wrong.

Stage 2: Next, you can see clearly everything that you're doing wrong and this can make you embarrassed or feel like a failure. Because it feels weird and wrong, it's easy at this stage to tell yourself to stick to the things you know how to do well instead.

Stage 3: If you stick with it, with time and practice you begin to understand how to do the new activity well. You're still a bit wobbly, but you're getting better. And with every new success, you grow a little in confidence.

Stage 4: Eventually the new activity becomes second nature. It’s now a habitual action you take without thinking. It feels natural and comfortable.

Stage two can be tough, but don't give up

So, let's think about this in terms of your career change, and all the new skills you might need to learn just to make the transition – these could include networking, interviewing, selling your strengths, pitching your ideas, giving presentations, talking to strangers, and so on.

For any unfamiliar new behaviours, you’ll go through the four learning stages and, for each, the behaviour will start out feeling weird and uncomfortable. It’s inevitable – you will start with a heightened awareness of how badly you think you are doing.

But don't let this discomfort stop you. It's just stage two of the learning process, and it will pass with perseverance and practice.

Understand the discomfort (and a little neuroscience)

Above, we talked about stage four, the final stage where you've done something the same way so many times that you just act without thinking. Most of the things you do every day are these automatic, habitual behaviours — from brushing your teeth or driving your car, to how you interact at work.

Let's look at a little neuroscience. Each time you behave in your normal, habitual way, a neuron in your brain fires down its usual route, automatically and subconsciously.

But now you need to try new activities and behave in new ways. You need to create new neural pathways in your brain. And these new neurons need to be fired consciously, because your brain is going to try to automatically revert to its usual routes, its usual habits.

And here's the key – when your brain automatically reverts to its habitual behaviours, it's not because the new ones are wrong, but simply because they are new, so they don't have strong, habitual neural pathways yet.

A real-world example of this might be that you habitually email people when you don't know them personally, and now you need to call someone to make a personal connection. Your brain will automatically want to email instead because that's the familiar habit, so it'll come up with all kinds of reasons why it's better not to call.

In this way, any new behaviours and actions will feel weird and wrong, and to start with you'll have to do them consciously and deliberately until your brain has fired those neurons enough times that it doesn't try to revert back to your original behaviour.

In our example above, you'd know that calling instead of emailing feels uncomfortable simply because it is a new behaviour, and tell yourself to give it a go anyway.

Four ways to work through the discomfort

So, how can you become more comfortable with the discomfort of learning and make your career transition easier?

Here are a few simple techniques that can help you persevere through initial discomfort to learn new skills and successfully make the career change you want.

1. Expect and accept the discomfort

When you behave in new ways, learn new skills and try new activities, expect a little discomfort at the beginning. Remind yourself that this isn't failure on your part, or incompetence; it's a normal stage of your learning process. Know that it will pass with practice and perseverance.

2. Track your progress

Keep a close eye on your achievements, so that you can see yourself improve. When you're beginning to learn something new and you see glaringly what you're doing wrong, it can be hard to see past that to notice what you're also doing right. Track your successes, and track what you are learning; you'll see yourself go from wobbly to competent in no time.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Know that doing something only a few times will mean that it continues to be uncomfortable. Practice is the only way to build up your neural pathways, to build up your body’s experience of the new action, the new way of behaving.

4. Start with baby steps

If a new behaviour seems too daunting to start, find ways to build up to it. Neuroscientists have found that every time you practise a new behaviour in any way, it strengthens the new neural pathway – even if you are just practising with friends, or talking to yourself in front of the mirror. So, if you need to start networking, find ways to practise fake networking to get your new habit started; you'll feel less discomfort when you get to the real thing.

Have you got stuck at Stage 2 when attempting to learn something new? What could you do to move through the discomfort next time? Let us know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.