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Are you going nowhere fast? Time to get out of the rut (and into the ocean!)

I grew up doing a lot of skiing. I can ski on most any mountain on most any slope (although there are some at Whistler I don’t want to see again!) I have never done scuba. I may be an expert skier but I am a novice diver. We (the family) are going to learn to dive--and there are life and leadership lessons here.

When we decided to take our first ski vacation, it was easy for me. I knew the ropes. I could research where we wanted to go, the conditions and type of mountain. I could easily lend support on picking out gear, putting it on, and getting to the lesson area. I was totally confident in my ability to function on skis and in my ability to support my family. (With superior competence, actually it is expertise in this case, isn’t that what the husband/father/leader is supposed to do?) It wasn’t a stretch for me to take the family skiing. Four years later, with all family members proficient in skiing, it is time to take on something else.

I have always wanted to scuba dive. I figure now would be a great time for us to certify as a family and take a dive vacation together. The problem is… I don’t even know what I don’t know! I am consciously incompetent. In skiing, I am unconsciously competent. Most people who have been doing something for a long time reach that level. In fact, you enjoy this level in many facets of your life.

Wikipedia tells us this was initially described as the “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill.” The theory was developed by Neal Burch with Gordon Training International in the 1970s. (It has since been frequently attributed to psychologist Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.) The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for internalizing new information. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, that is to say they are unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill. They then consciously use that skill. Eventually, the skill can be done without consciously being thought through, and the individual is said to have unconscious competence.

There are some who argue for a fifth level centering on complacency, in which the individual loses their edge and excellence in that skill. In executive coaching situations, we often start in level one: the “coachee” doesn’t know they have a problem, or in level five: the “coachee” has failed to adapt and develop, causing problems to emerge. Great strides are made in coaching sessions when we admit we don’t know and allow alternative solutions in.

Back to diving. I have some anxiety about the trip. I want it to go well, of course, but I also know I am not in as strong a position to lend support and assistance once we are on-site. Yes, we will all be certified. But beyond that, I will have no more experience under the water than the rest of my family--unlike on our ski trips when they all took lessons and I was able to ski, sometimes backwards, with them down whichever slopes they could handle.

I can research resorts and read Trip Advisor (great site) but cannot read between the lines on reviews for dive resorts as I well as I can for ski resorts. The easy fix would be to go skiing again, or maybe choose a less labor-intensive option, like a cruise. Then again, the easiest options are rarely the best options. Diving will challenge us all to develop a new skill and bring the opportunity to travel to new places and experience new things. In doing so, we will grow as individuals, and maybe as a family. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Noted Harvard academic John Kotter has written that leadership is about change for better results. Yet, in the face of uncertainty or anxiety, it is easy to want to go with what seems “safer,” more familiar. But taking the consistent and predictable path, while comfortable, can wear it down until it becomes a rut. In ruts, the human spirit can waste away and eventually even die. Leaders lead people out of or away from ruts.

I am looking forward to the dive experience. I hope this will be the first of many dive vacations. I am certain I will learn, and be changed for the better, by the experience. It may not be the easy path, but it’s certainly the better one. What paths are you taking (or not taking), and what implications do they have for you? I will update after vacation!

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.

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