‘I know only one thing: that I know nothing’ is the well-known saying attributed to Socrates. It is also the first step on the path to all learning. Although it may appear easy to admit our ignorance, it is in fact extremely hard. Learning involves humility and the recognition that we are not as good as we thought, and need to improve. Learning is above all an attitude and a way of seeing life. Very often we doggedly try to mould the world according to our expectations of the way things should be. However, reality time and again shows us that we are human and imperfect. It is from this contradiction that opportunities for learning arise. When we are very sure of ourselves, we don’t view what is happening to us through the eyes of a learner. We opt for an attitude of ‘superiority’ and of thinking that we are always right; and we insist on trying to make reality fit our expectations. A classic example of this is when we pigeon-hole someone as being a certain type of person. Once we’ve done this, we will never change our opinion of them, whatever they do. If you are sceptical about this, think about how often, when we meet someone, we merely reinforce our original view of them. Learning means not clinging to fixed ideas, being curious about the world, being humble and, above all, being open enough to experience genuine surprise. To use an image, learning means changing from being a train set on a pre-determined course to being a boat navigating uncharted waters. The first step on this journey consists in realising that ‘I know only one thing: that I know nothing’.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) describes the steps in the learning process in a very simple way. Let’s have a look …

Unconsciously incompetent (I don’t know that I don’t know): Human beings are especially good at pulling the wool over their own eyes. In fact, it might be one of our most developed characteristics! For many of us, any argument will do as long as it stops us from owning up to our shortcomings. We all have blind spots and will readily put on any blindfold that comes to hand in order to remain in the dark. Even when confronted with the truth by others, we persist in not wanting to see it. This is without doubt the most difficult phase in the learning process because it is a question of attitude. An example of this phase is when we are learning to drive. We have seen our parents driving for as long as we can remember, so we think that it can’t be very difficult. Fortified with this attitude, we take the wheel for the first time …

Consciously incompetent (I know that I don’t know): In order to embark on this phase, we need to have become aware of our limitations and to be ready to explore. How do achieve this state of awareness? In the world of work, diagnostic tools are sometimes used. Separate assessments are made of how someone sees themselves and how their colleagues see them; the two are then compared. The results often come as a surprise to the person concerned. Our mistakes and failures are major catalysts for initiating us in the phase of conscious incompetence. At the beginning, we often feel at a loss and our self-confidence completely disappears. However, this is the gateway to a voyage of true learning. To go back to our example of learning to drive, this phase starts when we sit behind the wheel for the first time. The other cars seem to be too close and the streets are like a minefield.

– Consciously competent (I start learning): This is the training or practice phase. It is the time of classes, teachers and books… or whatever other activities we do in order to improve. As learner drivers, it is when we start driving and memorise the process ‘clutch down, change gear’ or ‘indicate, then turn the wheel’. We know how to do it, but we can’t do it smoothly. It hasn’t become second nature yet. The same thing happens when we learn a language and need to construct sentences in our heard before saying them out loud. At this stage of the learning process, it’s very important to have the patience and the constancy necessary to create new habits; the main danger here is to stop trying because we get bored.

– Unconsciously competent (I know). We are now able to drive and think of other things at the same time, without consciously paying attention to the clutch or the indicators; or we can speak another language without having to stop to look for the right word. When we get to this stage, what we have learned has become part of us. We only get to this point after lots of practice. The danger now lies in being overconfident or in forgetting how difficult it is for someone to learn what we have learnt. If this happens, our new mistakes act like teachers who take us on a fresh journey of learning.


  1. Select something that you are good at, and think about it critically. To do this, talk to friends, colleagues, and family about an area where you feel that you perform well, and ask them how you could improve. Leave room for inner doubt.
  2. When you meet up with someone that you know well, make an effort to explore a new aspect of their character. Try to go beyond your ready-made assumptions and explore.
  3. If you make a serious mistake or fail in some important undertaking, ask yourself what you can learn from the experience.


Learning means adopting a Socratic outlook on life: ‘I only know that I know nothing’.

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