By Michael Stodola Special to Published Aug 18, 2007 at 7:34 AM

As we slumber through life, there are moments of occasional clarity. Most people experience mental breakthroughs that propel them along the path toward enlightenment. For me, it’s been more like 42 miles of bad road (pot holes, a few donut shops and an ax-murdering hitchhiker). Seriously though, when your mind relaxes enough and falls wide-open, actual learning takes place.

About 16 years ago, I worked for an extraordinary guy. He was a wonderful creative director, a close friend and one mighty force of life. His name was Bob, and he’s currently dead. The long story aside, he explained to me some right-useful stuff, including the process of learning itself. There’s an organic nature to learning that I’ve been reminded of lately. We’re currently developing a new Web site for our agency, and the process of defining our brand has been (can you guess?) a learning process.

Our first order of business was to write a new mission statement that defined us as an organization. It took some time, talk and introspection, but we crafted a collection of words that sum up our purpose. Before we talked pictures or “sell copy,” we wanted to nail down our philosophy. Currently, we’re designing pages and writing copy that build off that foundation. The process has been enlightening, refreshing and honest. When you begin with a solid strategy (not unlike a blueprint), it gives a creative mind infrastructure.

But, like I mentioned in my previous blog about self-promotion, it’s quite difficult to hang yourself out there honestly. Ironic as it may seem, it’s tough just being yourself. But, as you muddle forward, the company’s image begins to come into focus. We found that as our message became more refined, our voice got louder and more confident. We were feeling our way through the “Stages of Competence.” My friend, Bob, wrote the stages down on a piece of legal paper that hangs on my refrigerator to this day. It reads:

The Four Stages of Competence

1. Unconscious Incompetence: You’re too stupid to know you don’t know what you’re doing.

2. Conscious Incompetence: You’ve figured out you don’t know what you’re doing.

3. Unconscious Competence: You know what you’re doing, but are, as yet, unaware of that fact.

4. Conscious Competence: You know you know what you’re doing.

So, where are you on the list? I suppose it depends on the subject and time in your life. The secret is being aware of the process so you can let it happen. The journey to our Web site has been both a valuable creative lesson and an insightful business breakthrough. Branding is so intensely complex and the layers of growth and depth resemble a living organism: each well-thought cell adding to the company’s identity. We know we know what we’re doing. How about you?  

Michael Stodola Special to
Michael Stodola is the Creative Director at Boelter + Lincoln – a Milwaukee advertising agency. He loves his job, but not as much as he loves scuba diving, crab cakes or playing with his kids. His favorite thing is sneaking off for dates with his hottie wife. Born and raised in Nebraska, he’s been calling Milwaukee home for well over 10 years. After Michael’s impending death, he’d like to return to this world as your next American Idol®.