In Praise of “Competence!”

In Praise of “Competence!”

Correspondence. It’s one of the many things that makes my quiet life here in the Slaughterhouse worthwhile. Since I moved away from Boston and the US, I’m actually trading letters with people again. OK, they’re not handwritten, but the emails do have multiple, sometimes non-work-related paragraphs.

One recently hit my inbox with the subject line “Competence.” That made me giggle. It reminded me that, at one point, I even changed my Twitter handle to “Competence Man.”

The original reason for doing this is funny. The brand name of the oven in our Brussels apartment was, honest to God, “Competence.” Try saying it aloud, with a half-hearted exclamation mark, while weakly raising your fist and rolling your eyes. The branding was hilarious, especially for an American. We’re conditioned to believe that the last thing we want, or need, from a household appliance is mere competence. A competent oven isn’t going to impress the neighbors. A competent oven isn’t going to make Instagram-worthy bread. It’s never going to join the Internet of Things, preternaturally know when it needs cleaning, or be invited to share its hopes and dreams in a ten-minute, slide-rich motivational talk. 

To prove my point: when we returned to the US, the first commercial we saw was for some product or service claiming to be “The Future of Awesome.” I’m sure it ended up giving the keynote at TEDxPeoria.

But what’s worse, I realized, is that a merely competent oven requires the input of, at a bare minimum, a competent human being. Which meant that the oven was, in fact, trolling me. “THIS,” I told my wife after a few Duvels one evening, “is why we demand excellence from the appliances in our everyday lives. So that WE can get away with being merely competent.”

If you’ve been reading these sketches regularly, you already know her response: “Get a job!”

The thing is, I still had a job back then—a reporting gig that I was performing competently. This would later develop into a leadership role that I also carried out in a competent fashion. Things got done. Some days with more flair than others, but they got done. Then again, I was lucky enough to work in an industry that vainly believes it sets the bar high, but is, in fact, chronically drunk on its own self-importance and should be sent home to sleep it off. “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down,” to quote Tempe’s finest.

Publicly, competence gets short shrift. No one ever uses an exclamation mark when they describe someone’s performance as “competent.” But here’s a sure giveaway. They do use it when they talk about its uglier twin: “Incompetence!” I think that proves how important competence really is. Sure, it’s not “excellence!” But at the very least, it makes things happen, whereas incompetence doesn’t. To my mind, that gives competence a workmanlike beauty bordering on craft.

But our expectations of competence are schizophrenic. On one hand, we’ve enshrined the idea that failure is immensely valuable, and should be sought out. “Fail early and often,” the saying goes. The assumptions here—and they are huge ones—are that people not only learn from their failures, but also clean up the messes caused by them. I’ve witnessed and executed enough bad fails to know that neither of these assumptions is remotely correct. And if you don’t acknowledge the ramifications of failure, both for yourself and others, that’s incompetence.

Clock telling that it's telling the wrong time
Or is it?

On the other hand, there’s the incessant rhetoric of “striving for excellence.” Whiteboard (not a verb), iterate, gather feedback, reiterate, improve. Make it newer, better, and ever more excellent in an endless cycle. Good enough is never good enough! There’s nothing wrong with this either, as far is it goes. But the constant striving can also be messy, and expensive in terms of money, time, and human souls. And while all this creativity (often cleverly disguised busywork, let’s be honest) is going on, someone is tasked with making the donuts every day—with being, as a good friend of mine says, “the person who won’t f— things up.”

This is where Competence Man and Woman truly shine. They exist not in some consequence-free dreamworld of serial failure, or in some mostly dumb-luck starburst of success. Instead, they dwell in that vital, yet often purgatorial realm of not f-ing things up. In my experience, organizations of all sizes depend on competent people just to keep themselves moving. Are they moving in the right direction? For the competent, that’s not the question. They’re too busy asking themselves: am I keeping people’s heads above water long enough for them to catch their breaths and keep us all swimming? The competent aren’t rudderless…they’re just too busy trying to keep everyone and everything afloat. In this scenario, a good leader harnesses competent people and gives them direction (vital). A bad one leaves them flailing away continuously in the midst of a Pacific garbage patch (purgatorial)

So, if you come across a competent person practicing their craft well, don’t hesitate to use that exclamation mark: “Competence!” Appreciate that person for what they’re able to accomplish, and remember that he or she is likely in purgatory. Also, do what they tell you and don’t f— it up.

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