Monthly Archives: April 2011

Heading in the Right Direction, Part 4: Leaving the Comfort Zone

  • “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso 
  • “Years and years ago, I read a great interview with Jam and Lewis, the R&B producers, in which they described what it was like to be members of Prince’s band. They’d sit down, and Prince would tell them what he wanted them to play, and they’d explain that they couldn’t–they weren’t quick enough, or good enough. And Prince would push them and push them until they mastered it, and then just when they were feeling pleased with themselves for accomplishing something they didn’t know they had the capacity for, he’d tell them the dance steps he needed to accompany the music. This story has stuck with me, I think, because it seems like an encapsulation of the very best and most exciting kind of creative process.”   Nick Hornby, The Polysllabic Spree

In part three in this series on mapping a personal art journey, I talked about the duo challenge of mastering advanced skills and uncovering that which we don’t know. Understanding Abraham Maslow’s four stages of competence can help you stay focused and motivated when you’re learning new skills 

  • The Four Stages of Competence: 
  • Unconscious Incompetence. We don’t have the skill and we don’t even know we don’t have it (we don’t know what we don’t know). 
  • Conscious Incompetence. We know we don’t have the skill, but we don’t know how to get the skill.
  • Conscious Competence. We have the skill, but we have to think our way through it – it doesn’t feel natural. 
  • Unconscious Competence. We have the skill. The skill is not only a habit, but we operate on auto pilot. 
  • (For more information on Maslow’s four stages of competence, click Here:

Many behavior experts believe that human beings are primarily programmed to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Speed reading expert H. Bernard Wechsler also states that “humans operate 99% out of habit and experience – it creates our ‘comfort zone’.  Everything else is seen by our brain as invading our comfort zone and rejected. 

That explains why we often become stressed when we begin to uncover all that we don’t know and all the skills that we need to have in our back pockets if we are to be the kind of artist we really want to be. It can be a painful process, and it’s certainly understandable that we would much rather stay in our comfort zone and keep doing what we do best rather than travel to uncharted territories.   

But master painters are never satisfied with the status quo. Master painters always seek to grow in areas they don’t know. They are always pursuing new and higher levels of skill, mastery, and personal growth. And of course, these areas are always outside of their comfort zone.  

H. Bernard Wechsler offers another important key to skill building: “Only by creating a new habit and running on auto pilot will we be happy and comfortable in accepting newness and change into our lives.” So it seems to me that because we are programmed to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and stay in our comfort zone, the key to staying in our comfort zone as we continuously grow our art is to constantly be progressing through Maslow’s stages of competence until we reach stage four – where we have the skill, the skill is not only a habit, but we operate on auto pilot. 

What do you think? 

Happy Painting!