FORTUNE:
Secrets of Greatness  
Five levels of excellence
A final word: You've read how the great ones do it, and you've gotten some fine advice, both practical and inspirational. Now it's time to climb the mountain.
By Jerry Useem, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- White belt, green belt, brown belt, black. Novice, apprentice, journeyman, master. VP, GM, COO ... Oh, never mind. Poems are good for listing four things. But excellence can't be reduced to some simplistic four-level hierarchy. It has five levels.

Our framework is one variant of a model, a useful way to show how the brain works, popularized by the late psychologist Thomas Gordon some three decades ago. It shows the road to mastering a new skill - speaking a language, managing people, whatever - as a series of steps that get steeper. You can't move up by skipping steps. And most people don't reach the top.

stairs.03.jpg

The lowest level, Unconscious Incompetence, is a comfortable place. You think you know everything - and you can't hear the answers to questions you haven't even thought to ask. You can linger here forever, ignorant of your own ignorance, unless something shocks you into awareness ... and level two.

Entering this stage, Conscious Incompetence, is like learning you have bad breath. You were happier before you had this knowledge. But now you're motivated to improve. It's here that you learn the various steps of driving a stick shift. Depress clutch. Engage gear. Tap accelerator. Release clutch - but not so fast!

Eventually you accumulate enough know-how to reach level three, Conscious Competence. Now you can drive that stick-shift car around town, but only with great mental effort, and you stall out at every third stoplight. It will take time to attain level four, Unconscious Excellence, where you're no longer thinking. You just drive, and carry on a conversation - say, in Italian - without thinking about the rules of grammar.

Before we get to the highest level, let's see what's been happening in your head. There's the older, animal part of your brain that handles automatic tasks like swallowing. The newer, self-aware region deals with situations that take more processing power, like crossing the street in London. (Look right, then left.) As the newer part hands off tasks to the older part, it frees up working memory - and pushes you to Level Four.

But if you're, say, a NASCAR driver, you don't want to drive on automatic. You want control of every nuance - which brings us to level five: Conscious Excellence. At this rarefied place, you use your conscious mind to deconstruct and modulate the elements of your performance. (There's nothing simpler than running - unless you're a sprinter who takes years to shave a second off her time.) This also means you can explain it to others - something that level four achievers cannot do.

You're at the pinnacle! So just beware the trapdoor and ... oh, did we mention the trapdoor? Yeah, it's called Overconscious Incompetence, a.k.a. Chuck Knoblauch syndrome, after the Yankee second baseman who suddenly couldn't make the simple throw to first.

That's the thing about thinking: Your mind is your ally, if it can stay out of the way. "Visualize," the sports psychologists say. So summon, if you will, the classic photo of Thomas Watson Sr., patriarch of IBM, beneath his famous motto, THINK. And next to it, a version that's been modified to read, THINKING IS STINKING. Hold those both in your head, though not too much, and let the excellence begin.

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What it takes to be great

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.