How to develop competence

By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.

Last week, I discussed motivation — how to develop motivation and nurture that skill.

While writing that article, I thought a lot about two other aspects of motivation: competence and confidence. I think that confidence in one’s abilities tends to derive from being competent at a skill, so in this article I’m going to discuss developing competence.

In many ways, establishing competence is similar to what we do for motivation and thus some of the components may be quite similar. The end results, while also overlapping, are somewhat different.

Competence is the knowledge that we can perform a skill well most of the time. We have confidence in that ability — whether driving a car, giving a speech, setting up a camping tent, cooking scrambled eggs or changing the oil in one’s car.

Some skills require a bit of knowledge and practice, such as the abovementioned making scrambled eggs. Other skills are considerably more complex, such as removing a ruptured appendix.

And then there are many skills that require a modest amount of practice, such as tying a four-in-hand tie or cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Lastly, there are skills that may require a decent amount of practice to be able to perform at a very basic level, but substantial time and effort to perform well, such as learning a new language or playing piano.

What all of these skills require to develop competence are knowledge, practice, feedback and experience.

Similar to last week, here are my observations for developing competence:

• Set clear goals — specific, measurable, relevant, realistic goals. Do you want to learn to play Chopsticks or the Moonlight Sonata?

• Break down the steps to achieve a basic, beginning level of competence, to be satisfied with your progress.

Reward yourself as you achieve these early milestones.

Practice regularly, get feedback and learn from mistakes. Mistakes are not failures — they are an integral part of the process of achieving competence.

Get feedback from those who have the competence you seek and will give you honest, encouraging feedback.

Be realistic in how much time you are willing to devote to this task. We tend to overestimate how much time and effort we are willing and able to devote to something new.

As you practice, you may realize the skill you are practicing requires far more time and effort than you originally realized and you may need to rethink your original goals. It may take more time or you may need to scale back your expectations.

One of the major benefits of learning new skills is that it improves brain functioning. Whether the new skill is doing squats or push-ups, it is the brain that sends the signals to the muscles.

If you are learning a new language, the same brain is sending new signals and creating new pathways, strengthening your brain circuits.

If you are learning to play piano and read bass clef, again, new brain pathways are being developed, which is an essential skill for maintaining brain health.

So, not only will you be developing competence, you will be supporting your brain health in the process! What a great way to also support confidence in yourself.

Go ahead and find a new skill to enjoy!

Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas. He can be reached at

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