Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence is Still Progress

conscious incompetence on the horizon

Last year, I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla Roadster around Austin. I remember being absolutely blown away by the power of the car, and feeling eager to see what it was capable of, and to milk this rare experience for all the joy I could. Never mind, I didn’t have much experience driving high-performance super cars to get behind the wheel with as much earnest as I did. I just wanted to push the cars limits.

You know where this is going. I almost wrecked the car, and didn’t realize how close I came until later.

Supercars, like the Tesla, push a lot of power (torque) to the rear wheels, which allows the car to get up and go incredibly fast. The more power, the easier to make the tires spin, burn rubber, and lose traction if you press the accelerator to the floor.

But if you spin the tires as you go into a turn, the rear wheels can lose grip and send the car into a tailspin.

Fortunately, all modern sports cars have a safety feature called “dynamic traction control,” or “dynamic skid control.” Basically, there are computers and sensors plugged into the tires of the car that monitor when the driver is at risk of losing control of the vehicle. If you start to spin the wheels, the computers reduce the torque to the rear wheels so they don’t lose traction, and you stay on the road instead of wrapping the car around a pole.

If you lose control of the car, something like this can happen.

You’ll never guess what I do almost as soon as I hop in the Tesla.

I floor it around a corner in a West Austin neighborhood. My margin for error was about 18 feet across to the other side of the street where someone had parked a Volvo. Of course, nothing happened because the Tesla had skid control on and protected me from the $130,000 catastrophe I was a few foot pounds of torque away from.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and it almost burned me.

After driving my MX-5 in the rain enough – which has a much smaller engine, but is light and can easily go into a fishtail – I have a lot more respect for the nuance and control needed to drive a powerful car like the Tesla Roadster.

Ignorance in Business can be just as dangerous

In the last 6 months, I’ve begun to learn how much I don’t know about business and startups. The shape of my own ignorance is revealing itself to me. As if the sun were rising to reveal a new point on the horizon that had appeared suddenly the night before. It’s still far off, but I can see what I couldn’t 6 months ago.

I can’t yet describe it to you here. It’s still nebulous. But I know there is something for me to learn. There is evidence all around in the incredible effects of knowledge and experience from the new folks who are joining our company. Their experience, put to work, is having an incredible impact, and it’s clear that they are bringing things to the table completely unique to their experience and superpowers. And I wasn’t even aware of what was possible before they came on board.

Writing this down makes me think, “Well duh, Austin. Of course other people who have worked in startups longer than you have more experience to bring to the table.” All the same, it’s amazing to see the effects of their work and to admire the accomplishments of the team that wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t working together. I’ll confess that I a few months ago, I didn’t have much perspective about what could be possible. That ignorance could have gotten me in trouble.

This is encouraging. Despite the seemingly dispiriting dawn of awareness of my own ignorance, it actually means that I am making progress. When we are still unaware of it, our ignorance can be dangerous if we act as if we are totally in control. We can climb out of the Tesla without realizing how close we came to wrapping it around a station wagon.

I take heart in the knowledge that beginning to identify the shape of my own ignorance is a good sign of progress. I suppose it’s the classic process of “unconscious incompetence” transforming itself into “conscious incompetence” hard at work inside of me. Hopefully “conscious competence” is on the horizon soon.

As I reflect on what we’ve all had the chance to witness at the company in the past 6-8 months, all the growth, maturity, and progress that has been made as a result of the amazing leadership we’re bringing in, I find myself in awe of what excellence looks like, and in awe of how I basically had zero concept of the vision our executive team could bring to bear, and in such a short period of time. It’s a testament to their skill and experience that the company continues to live up to its promise, and exceed expectations.

The post isn’t really about what the people I get to work with are able to accomplish, other than to celebrate them as an example of high-achievers who serve as a horizon-broadening example of amazing vision, as well as what excellence and execution look like.

Instead, this blog post is mostly a way for me to publicly confess my own ignorance, in recognition of how much there is to learn. And then to remind myself that staying willing to learn means we can keep making progress day after day.

One of my beliefs is that if you have the ability to visualize something you want to achieve, then your mind has the capacity to achieve it. I don’t believe as humans we are able to conceive of things we cannot achieve. When we begin to recognize our own ignorance, it means we are beginning to identify the steps between where we are and where we want to be.

And as long as we don’t burn ourselves too bad along the way – and don’t crash $130,000 supercars – chances are, we’ll achieve what we’re after.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter





Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.


  • “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
    There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
    – Donald Rumsfeld

    • There are known trolly commenters; there are those that we know.
      There are unknown trolly commenters; that is to say, there are trolls that we know we don’t know.
      But there are also unknown trolly commenters – there are those trolls that we could not know until they quote Donald Rumsfeld on your blog.


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