This model breaks down the journey to mastery in five discrete stages, outlining what’s necessary to improve at each of them.

The 5 Skill Levels

1. Novices

The main goal of novices is to accomplish immediate tasks. Since they have little or no previous experience, they’re usually insecure and are focused only on having their first successes. Novices need clear rules and unambiguous instructions, and to concentrate on following them strictly. As such, they commonly don’t feel responsible for anything other than correctly following what was passed to them (“I’m just following orders!”).

To improve, novices usually need close monitoring to bring their actions as close as possible to achieve what is expected by adhering to the rules.

2. Advanced Beginners

Advanced beginners still operate following rules, but they’re able to apply them not only on the exact situations that they were intended for, but also on similar contexts. The once-rigid rules become more like guidelines. Advanced beginners try new things out, but still have difficulty troubleshooting problems. Just like novices, they’re still focused on completing tasks — they don’t want lengthy theorizing and don’t have much interest in the big picture.

To improve, advanced beginners need to gain experience dealing with real situations, preferably in limited and controlled situations (with much of the ‘real-world complexity’ filtered out).

3. Competent

As the rules and guidelines become prohibitively complex, practitioners begin organizing and sorting them by relevance, forming conceptual models. Competent practitioners can troubleshoot problems, and will work based on deliberate planning and past experience. They are willing to make decisions and to accept responsibility for their outcomes.

To improve, competent practitioners need exposure to a wide variety of typical, real-world, ‘whole’ situations. By dealing with those, they better grasp the connections between the isolated conceptual models they already use.

4. Proficient

Proficient practitioners create not only conceptual models, but a conceptual framework around their whole skill. They want the big picture, and become frustrated with oversimplified information. They’re conscious of their performance and can adjust their behaviors accordingly. They can also use and adapt others’ experiences, as well as grasp and applymaxims — which require much more sophisticated interpretation than mere rules or guidelines (as they’re much more generic and context-dependent).

To advance to the fifth and last level, proficient practitioners need even more practice — lots of it. And, as much as possible, they should practice without being hindered by policies or guidelines. The intuition of the expert starts with a vast pool of practical knowledge, and that can only be developed by experimenting freely.

5. Experts

The hallmark of experts is intuition: they just do what works — no explicit analysis or planning is involved. While proficient practitioners can intuitively identify problems, experts can go and intuitively solve them. They tap into their vast pool of knowledge and effortlessly identify patterns, applying solutions in context. Although experts are amazingly intuitive, they are usually rather inarticulate in explaining how they arrived at a conclusion.

Although technically this is the last stage in the model, experts never cease to practice and evolve in subtle ways, incorporating rarer and exceptional cases in their knowledge pool.

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