The Four Stages of Competence

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(By Matt Gerdes – Originally published in 2015, recently edited)

Scotty-Bob showed me some of his footage from a summer in the Alps. It was impressive. He was flying serious lines, staying connected to complex and varied terrain for long periods of time with an incredible amount of precision and control.

Scotty Bob in action

My first instinct (as a human and a wingsuit BASE jumper) was to compare myself to him – I thought about other similar lines that I had flown, and imagined myself flying these Scotty-Bob lines with similar commitment. This was a natural reaction, and if you are a wingsuit BASE jumper or an aspiring wingsuit BASE jumper, then you may have the same instinctual reaction when you see footage: you imagine yourself flying similarly to the video.

This natural reaction is not always accompanied by an important thought process which analyzes how Scotty-Bob came to fly the way he does: when we see footage like this, we should think carefully about how it came to exist. Was he born different from you and me? Does he own a magic wingsuit? Or is he just somehow lucky enough to spend more time in the mountains? The answer is no, to all of those. It’s a question of practice, commitment, and progression.

4 Stages of Competence

The four stages of competence were explained to me by a highly competent member of the US armed forces:

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence
Scotty Bob, training for steep lines, many years ago.

1. Unconscious incompetence

At this first stage, you are crap. The problem is that you are so crap that you don’t even know that you are crap. Don’t laugh, we could be describing you! (Also see Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Anosognosia). In order to move beyond this first phase of incompetence, you must admit that you know very little about what you are doing, and you must admit that you need a lot more knowledge and training to improve. Advancing beyond this lamentable state requires self-awareness, good judgment, and humility – qualities that don’t come naturally to all of us.

“The problem is that you are so crap that you don’t even know that you are crap”

Just because you have 100 wingsuit jumps does not mean you have been doing it right – practice makes permanent, not perfect, and you could still be doing it wrong after all those jumps. There are wingsuit pilots out there with hundreds of jumps, but a low level of competence and an inaccurate perception of their skill. Despite having some experience, they fit into this category of unconscious incompetence.

The BASE Fatality List is littered with examples of unconsciously incompetent pilots. These are wingsuit BASE jumpers who were trying things that they should not have been trying, because their inexperience caused them to misjudge their own skill and competence – they couldn’t accurately assess their own abilities and got themselves into situations that they did not recognize as dangerous (or impossible).

Holding a slot is relevant training for wingsuit BASE, but much time should be devoted to managing speed and energy in low AoA flight – get in touch with Scotty Bob for training!
Photo by Todd Davis

2. Conscious incompetence

At this stage, you understand that you are not awesome and have a lot to learn. Congratulations, you’re honest with yourself and you now understand that you currently suck! Again, don’t laugh, because this is a major breakthrough that you should take seriously. At this point in your progression, you should be able to look at Scotty-Bob’s video and know for sure that there is a lot of something separating you from doing what he is doing – and a big part is called training and education. You need to train with experienced wingsuit flyers, talk to the most experienced wingsuit BASE jumpers, and think critically about how much training Scotty-Bob completed before getting to where he is now.

“Congratulations, you’re honest with yourself and you now understand that you currently suck”

Do you know how many wingsuit skydives Scotty-Bob has? Do you know how much time he has spent wingsuit BASE jumping? Do you know what percentage of his income and total available minutes of life he devotes to wingsuit BASE jumping? I think the answer would surprise you, but if you are consciously incompetent at least you are open to the idea of thinking about it. Too many jumpers have made the mistake of thinking that the only thing separating them from the most radical videos is a plane ticket and a few big jumps in the Alps.

Mike Swanson backflying with Scotty-Bob over Skydive Perris
Photo by Colby Lefebvre

3. Conscious competence

After a few years of practice, you’ve arrived at the stage in which you can fly pretty well. If you’re a wingsuit BASE jumper, then there is no way that you’ve achieved this level of competence without at least a few hundred BASE jumps, and more wingsuit skydives. If you have less than that but think you are at this stage, then there is a chance that you’re still in stage one.

“A great deal of thought, planning, and foresight is needed for every jump if you want to stay alive”

At this stage, you know what you are doing but a great deal of thought, planning, and foresight is needed for every jump in order to stay safe. Weather, terrain, physical and mental factors all must be ideal in order for you to fly within your abilities. Although anyone in BASE would consider you to be ‘very experienced’, the fact is that you are still highly susceptible to variations in weather conditions, exit type and footing, gear configuration, and your physical / mental state. A problem with any one of those could be your undoing.

Scotty-Bob, unconscious competence

4. Unconscious competence

At this point, when you’re standing on an exit point, you know how far you can fly and what landing zones are possible, but you’ve also dialed in the use of laser inclinometers and you understand exit profiles. If conditions aren’t perfect, then you will be able to adapt your exit technique to make up for it, to an extent. Although it is possible for anyone to burn-in as a result of one small mistake, at this point in your progression you are more likely to survive a small error or an unexpected change in the conditions on a jump. But never forget that the problem with wingsuit BASE jumping is this: wingsuit pilots at this level still die, every year.

When the most capable and experienced wingsuit BASE jumpers die – guys that are operating at an unconsciously competent level after years of full time practice – what does that mean? It brings us to another important discussion of complacency and its effect on our judgment. The best pilots normally succumb to a series of errors that fit into the categories of complacency, judgment, and competency.

An old maxim of flying is that “A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill.”

“A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill.” 

Wingsuit BASE jumping is, undeniably, incredibly dangerous. The fact that even the best can perish “unexpectedly”, means we must take progression, training, and judgment considerations more seriously every year. Hone your skills, but nurture your judgment, too.

Matt Gerdes following Scotty-Bob off of Brevent, in Chamonix, France
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Meet: Matt Gerdes

Matt logged over 1200 safe BASE jumps (mostly wingsuit flights in the Alps, where he opened a few new lines). He is the author of the BASE Book. Matt podiumed at Red Bull Aces 2015, finished top five in 2016, was 2016 WOWS Distance champion and 3rd in Speed. He is the co-founder of SQRL equipment (www.squirrel.ws), Next Level Flight (www.nextlevel.ws), and is a FAA rated pilot.

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