In Competence, by Carole Howard

There I was, driving in warm and sunny South Africa on Christmas Day. It wasn’t only the climate that was reversed. I was on the left side of the road. In a car with the driver’s seat on the right. I felt like I’d gone through the looking glass.

I needed to think through my every move in advance, as in, “Get ready to shift from 2nd to 3rd. Gear shift on my left, check. The gears are arranged the same way as in the U.S., so it’s lower left to upper right. Lower left to upper right. Here goes.”

“Left turn coming up. Look to my right to see if anyone’s in the lane I’m turning into, check. Remember, turn signal’s on the right of the steering column.”

Right turns and four-way stops were particular challenges. It’s a good thing the gas, brake, and clutch were arranged in the “normal” way, or I wouldn’t be here to tell this tale.

Becoming inept at something at which I’d previously been quite ept reminded me of the four levels of skill development we identified in the training business.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. You’re doing something incorrectly, but you don’t even know it’s incorrect. Example: In the gym, you do abdominal crunches but you hate them.
  1. Conscious Incompetence. The trainer tells you that you’re holding your head and neck at the wrong angle. Who knew? She shows you the correct position.
  1. Conscious Competence. You can hold your neck and head correctly – but only when you really concentrate. When your attention turns, as it always does, to “When will this be over?” you go back to your old ways.
  1. Unconscious Competence, the desired goal, training nirvana. You still think, “When will this be over?” but your head and neck stay where they belong.

My driving skills had slipped back from the fourth to the third stage. Frightening, to be sure, but it definitely made me notice things. Who ever notices all the things they’re doing when they’re driving? No one except new drivers. It’s like noticing your breath when you’re meditating.  Normally, you don’t pay attention to your breath. When you meditate, you do. Well, you try.

And this intense attention is one of the reasons I travel. It’s not just about seeing the Eiffel Tower or going to the Namibian Art Museum, it’s about noticing things – about myself, about the world – that had previously slipped under the radar of consciousness.

It’s not exactly the same as becoming grateful for things previously taken for granted, like having the hot water and the cold water come out of the same spigot. Or even having hot water at all. Or eating salad without having to worry about its bacterial level.

Yes, the gratitude is good, but there’s more to it.

Before being grateful, you’ve got to be awake. It’s not so important what I notice as that I notice. In my normal life, my comfort zone, the ordinary is often invisible; only different or problematic things (or items on my to-do list) get noticed. Being outside my comfort zone spurs me to notice things. My mind and my senses are alert. More alive. Not always comfortable, but stimulated.

IMG_3304For example, the sky is all around me at home, but I rarely notice it. In Namibia, though, it was exhilarating. Bigger, I thought. (Can that really be?) Between the fluctuations in the color and the clouds that were as puffy as in kids’ drawings, it was always interesting. (And I also found it interesting that I found the clouds so interesting. Why don’t I feel that way at home?)

I guess that’s why they call it the comfort zone. As with your mattress, you notice things more acutely when they’re not so comfortable.   When were you last out of your comfort zone. Notice anything?


Carole Howard was a corporate (not physical) trainer before becoming a writer.  She is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is currently writing a book about some of her travel experiences (I Didn’t Know Squat: Post-Retirement Volunteer Travel).


Filed under musings, writing

11 responses to “In Competence, by Carole Howard

  1. Absolutely wonderful piece, Carole! Thank you for this great inspiration, which I’ll be sharing. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your kind words, Nicole. And thanks so much for sharing. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Carole, your driving analogy was right on. Driving in Britain taught me a lot about observing. But, I remember taking a twelve day voyage across the Atlantic years ago. I had a berth with a porthole at sea level. Every morning as I woke, I would look out and the sea looked different than the day before. Sometimes it was smooth like a mirror, with reflected clouds. Other days, it was shrouded in fog. Sometimes it was choppy and alive. That fascinated me. I had previously thought water was water, the sea was the sea. Not so. It’s mood changed infinitely. That experience affected me so much, I really notice things now. Not just by sight, but by all my senses.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. That’s a great image, of looking at the water every day, seeing something different, and realizing water is not just water. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Gini Hamilton

    Nice message about noticing…and appreciating. My temporary one-handed state is reminding me not only about how much my non-available (and non-dominant) hand does on a regular basis, but also how much I actually can do with only one. Lots of gratitude and a little daily humor! I love your blog posts! They’re harnessed wisdom. 🙂

  6. Temporary one-handedness: a whole new way of looking at/relating to your world. Glad about the daily humor. And, oh my goodness, what a phrase — “harnessed wisdom” — so appreciative.

  7. Carole, your post makes me think of what the Buddhists call mindfulness, which can involve being fully present for the most mundane, every day tasks. Intellectually, I know it’s an important practice even though in real life I may spend twenty minutes looking for my glasses which are on top of my head.

  8. Yes, Anita, so true. Mindfulness sounds so simple….. except to anyone who’s tried to practice it. Maybe looking for the glasses hidden on your head is a nice opportunity to practice?

  9. Great piece, very smart! As a 30 year practitioner of medittion and mindfulness, I really resonate! 🙏

  10. Pingback: Meet My Old Friend, Senegal | carolejhoward

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