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  • Martha Engeman

Learning to Soft-Boil an Egg...Again

The other day my daughter announced that she had a new and better way to soft-boil an egg. Now I have used the same procedure to soft-boil my eggs for my entire adult life, so my first response was to question why I should learn a new way to soft-boil an egg--after all, my approach was working. But Emily was persistent. With some skepticism, I decided to give it a try. My Grandmother had taught me to put eggs and cold water in a pot, heat the water to a boil, boil them for 3 minutes, then immediately drain the water and fill the pot with cold water to stop the cooking. The only problem was that it was always tough to peel the egg. In fact, a good bit of the white of the egg ended up stuck to the shell as I peeled the egg. My daughter’s approach was to boil the water first, then add the eggs and turn down the heat to let them gently cook for 6 minutes before draining the hot water and filling the pot with cold water. The result were perfectly cooked, easy-to-peel soft-boiled eggs.

Now, I can safely say that I never, ever, questioned how I soft-boiled eggs. It was one of those things I had done thousands of times, like driving a car. It was automatic. And as with most things that become automatic, I didn’t consciously think about it. It never even occurred to me that there could be a better way, until Emily showed me.

Psychology defines competence in four stages known as the Hierarchy of Competence:

Hierarchy of Competence

  • The first stage is Unconscious Incompetence. Another way to describe this is, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t even have the awareness of not knowing, just as I didn’t have the awareness of another way to cook a soft-boiled egg.​

  • The next stage is Conscious Incompetence. This is when you know what you don’t know. You realize how much you need to learn to become competent. Recall when you were learning to drive and were faced with all of the rules and regulations of the road along with the need to learn the actual skill of driving. At first it is daunting.

  • The third stage is Conscious Competence. This is when you know what you know. You can drive the car on your own, but you really need to think about everything you do as you drive.

  • Finally you reach Unconscious Competence. This is when what you know is so embedded in you, you don’t have to think about it. You get in the car, turn it on and drive without having to focus intently on every single move.

Both Unconscious Incompetence and Unconscious Competence can be challenging precisely because they are unconscious. In the first stage, we simply have no clue. In the final stage, we are so sure of ourselves, we may not be willing to change. That’s why I believe that true growth happens only when we are willing to move from Unconscious Competence back to Unconscious Incompetence, and through the Hierarchy of Competence again, just as I did when Emily taught me a new way to soft-boil an egg.

Too often in life, we stick with what we know. We develop a certain level of expertise in our work, our families, our homes, our relationships, and may not be as open to learning new ways to do things. That’s not to say that we should let go of what we know. However there is a fine line between owning what we do know and opening up to that which is new. We owe it to ourselves to develop enough curiosity to be willing to try new approaches and learn new things. So here’s to the journey, and to learning how to soft-boil an egg…again.


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