Throttle Therapy: Fall 2021 Conscious Competence


Although we can’t control outcomes when we know what we are doing it should be pretty easy to make a good decision. Then again, knowing or thinking we know what the right (or best) thing to do, doesn’t mean that we will choose the best option.

Trusting in processes that are learned while gaining experience and going through the stages from being unconsciously incompetent (not knowing what you don’t know), to consciously incompetent (knowing that you don’t know), to consciously competent (knowing what you know, but having to think about the decisions you make) hopefully leads to being unconsciously competent (making decisions without seemingly having to think about them).


There are good things about each stage of competency.


For example, being willing to try things that don’t know about is a great way to keep the old bean sharp. In fact, research at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute is demonstrating that trying something new improves our ability to learn and be more flexible. (see: https://zuckermaninstitute.columbia.edu/why-you-should-try-something-new-every-day) And once we know we need to work to be better at something the growth that comes with learning a new skill or task is beneficial. When it comes to being at a consciously competent stage we should try to avoid falling into fixedness where we do the same things in the same way even if we are told that they have to be done in a certain way. Competence itself is not fixed.


I applaud my students at the racetrack for having the courage to come out and learn about performance driving. During our class sessions we talk about the learning process and stages of competence. My goal is to decrease the level of tension that comes with trying something new, especially in the high speed environment of flinging your car around. Throughout the day we talk about how they are managing their stress and learning to trust the processes that help us drive well on the track. It’s amazing when I see students achieve a conscious competence by the end of the day.


We make assumptions about the competence of others all the time based on our biases. This is not a bad thing because our biases can help us navigate the world around us as long as we don’t get stuck in our assumptions. In the high-performance driving world, I think it is safe to assume that Formula 1 drivers have the best driving skills in the world. This extreme level of competency, however, is just one aspect of what gets the drivers on the F1 grid the chance to compete for a World Championship. Even the exceptional drivers in F1 need to be open to learning.


The races that started the second half of the 2021 F1 championship offer a good example of experience-based learning taking place right before our eyes. 2021 has been a special season. There are two drivers locked in a close fight for the driver’s championship. Lewis Hamilton is the current champion and he has won the title seven times. He holds the records for wins, pole positions, and titles. Lewis was aiming at Formula 1 from the time he was a child and was groomed by the McClaren team. He started racing F1 when he was 21 years old in 2007 and has never finished lower than fifth in the championship. He’s had some close battles, and after McClaren was eclipsed by the Red Bull team during the 2010 to 2012 seasons he switched from McClaren to the Mercedes team for the 2013 season and has been there since. Together they have been dominant. He’s won the title every year except one when he was beaten by his teammate in a tension filled season long fight. He is as fast as ever and as tenacious as ever too. Hamilton was joined in F1 by Max Verstappen in 2015. At 17 years old Max was the youngest driver to ever compete in F1. Max also grew up to be an F1 driver and is the leader at Red Bull. Their competition has made the season compelling.


When both Mercedes and Red Bull have faltered this season, McClaren which has returned to being a top team has been in position to benefit the most. Its 21-year-old Lando Norris who began his F1 career in 2019 seems likely to challenge for the championship in the future if his team continues to improve, and he is as dedicated to improving as Hamilton and Verstappen have been.


Lando, Max, and Lewis played starring roles in the midseason races. The first one was the Italian Gran Prix. The race came down to Max and Lewis fighting over the same piece of track through a corner. Neither would yield and both said it was up to the other to give way. The result was that they crashed each other out of the race. McClaren benefitted the most. Daniel Ricciardo, their more experienced drive won and Lando finished second. Max and Lewis were so far ahead of the rest of the field in the Drivers’ championship that it didn’t matter that they took each other out. If the championship had three or four drivers with a chance to win I doubt Max and Lewis would have been so aggressive with each other. Since that was not the case, their crash was about showing who has more will to win. Lewis has often intimidated his teammates and opponents, so it was important for Max to show that he is a match for him. It was a good decision for each of them not to yield. They and their teams knew exactly what they were doing.


The next race was the Russian Gran Prix. The track usually produces a boring race since it is difficult for drivers to pass each other. Things were spiced up because Max got a three-place grid penalty for the accident that he and Lewis had at Monza. On top of that Red Bull was penalized for needing to use a new power unit so he would be starting at the back of the field. Putting him at the back promised to make the race more exciting for the fans. To add to the drama, Lewis made an uncharacteristic mistake in qualifying so he would be starting fourth instead of his more usual first or second. The start of any race is chaotic. The safest places to be are at the front so you are ahead of any crashes in the field behind you or at the back of the pack so you can see and avoid crashes that happen in front of you. Starting fourth meant that Lewis was in the middle of a potential mess. His start didn’t look great. Instead of challenging for the lead he was down to about eighth after the first lap. Perhaps it was an unlucky or uncharacteristic bad start, or maybe it was a conservative approach given his many years of experience and the fact that his championship rival, Verstappen, was starting from last place. In either case, Lewis didn’t panic when a Ferrari took the lead, or when McClaren’s Norris, who started the race on pole took the lead 13 laps later. This was Norris’ first pole. In contrast Hamilton had started from pole position 101 times, and Verstappen had started 11 races from pole.


As the race unfolded Max made progress though the field and Lewis came closer to Lando, but Norris had a significant lead and it seemed like a sure thing that he would win his first F1 race. Then with a handful of laps left it began to rain. Hamilton’s team asked him to come into the pits to change to rain tires. McClaren did the same with Norris. Lewis agreed, but Lando told the team to leave him alone to race. The rain became so heavy that he couldn’t keep his car on the track and he was forced to limp into the pits for rain tires. By that time Hamilton had passed him. Norris would finish eighth while Verstappen improbably ended up in second place.


Although he’s just 21, Norris has been racing for a long time so he’s been in similar situations where he’s had to figure out what to do during a race with changing conditions, but the level of strategy involved in F1 seemed new for him. In contrast, Lando’s teammate, Ricciardo, has been in F1 since 2011. Daniel has won several F1 races and has McClaren’s only win this season (at the Italian Grand Prix), but he’s never won the championship. Along the way he has evolved from being the hot young racer like Lewis, Max, and Lando to a mature racer who brings stability as well as speed to his team. When he joined McClaren this season it took him some time to get acclimated, but his race win has justified the decision for both him and the team. He has adapted and learned. He and several other drivers on the grid are just a step away in quality from Hamilton and Verstappen.


It is likely that Norris would have rewarded his team with a better finish than eighth place if he had come in to change tires when the team called him, but who knows? A lot of things could have happened but didn’t. What it looked like was that Norris made a mistake by not relying on his team. What it represented was an opportunity for the team to help its driver grow. Giving Norris the chance to make his own call will hopefully be repaid in the future when a similar situation comes about. Trust in the student’s ability to learn must be just as much a part of the equation as the student needing to trust the learning process.


Beyond the conscious competence lies unconscious competence. In a car this means know what your car will do when you provide input rather than reacting to what happens when you provide the input. Anyone who drives knows that their car will slow down when they hit the brakes but being able to control the brakes to help the car turn and to turn the car while going through the gears to get the right one to accelerate out of turn in the most efficient way possible takes a lot of practice. Being able to do this while racing other cars takes things to another level.


This level of competence is not the same as being in the zone, but this level of competence is necessary in order to bring about the state where one is in the zone on command. That’s the thing about competence. It is possible to be in the zone without knowing what you are doing or find yourself in the zone at any other level of competence, but it will be almost impossible to replicate it intentionally unless you are unconsciously competent.


As we wrap up 2021 the F1 driver championship has come down to the last race with Hamilton and Verstappen tied on points. The organizers are ecstatic. It seems like Hamilton has the advantage psychologically, and that there is more at stake for Max as he tries to break Hamilton’s grip on the championship. In reality they are both going to be fine – neither of them is going to lose his job and crazy lifestyle. There are so many factors outside of what a driver can control from mechanical failure to another driver’s error causing one of them to crash. If the play goes to plan the final race will be entertaining and there will be plenty to talk about until they resume racing in the spring. Hopefully their fight will give us lessons in how to avoid negative distractions.