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Living on the Edge of Incompetence

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Karl W. Palachuk
March 2, 2011

How do you feel about being incompetent? Honestly: Is it good to be incompetent?

I say yes!

I was reading a book recently and one section was about how no one wants to be seen as incompetent. One character in the book was having a crisis of incompetence.

That got me thinking about the times when I have felt the most incompetent. In every case it had to do with a new job or a new role. On my first day, or preparing for my first day, I felt incompetent.

The truth is, I’m NOT competent in most things. The same is true with everyone. At any given time, you are only competent in a few things. They might be related to your job, your hobbies, or the roles you play (parent, spouse, friend, sibling, etc.).

What are you really great at? What are you a little bit good at? Okay. Well, you’re not good at everything else! We are each incompetent about almost everything! And it’s okay.

The reason we feel particularly incompetent in a new job is that we have taken on something and we want to be good at it. So often we find ourselves saying “Well I asked for it!”

You only feel incompetent when it involves something at which you want to feel competent. In other words, the self-awareness of incompetence comes hand in hand with a desire for excellence.

In my life there have been two examples of incompetence that stand above all the rest: My first day as a teacher and my first day as a father. As it turns out, I did a pretty good job in both endeavors.

As a teacher, I had lots of reasons to feel competent. I had credentials, degrees, and many years of experience learning the subject I was going to teach. I was even given guidelines, sample course outlines, reading lists, and all kinds of resources to help in my success.

But I had never done it. I had never run a class for a semester. I had never graded papers or managed a classroom. I had never dealt with assigning deadlines and sticking to them.

And on and on. I had experienced good and bad teaching as a non-teacher.

As a new parent I felt even more incompetent. I had two great role models with my own parents. But I knew nothing about how to do this job myself.

Unlike teaching, I had very little “education” on parenting. I had read a lot about pregnancy and childbirth. My wife and I felt reasonably confident that the birth would go well. And in the final analysis, my role was primarily that of a supporting partner. I didn’t have to eat right, get sick, go through dozens of doctor visits, or do any of the pushing on the day of delivery.

But once my daughter Victoria was born, I was a full participant in the process . . . for the rest of my life.

I remember being particularly struck by the fact that they let us just leave the hospital with this new, tiny baby. “Don’t they know how incompetent I am?”

Of course with parenting, this feeling of incompetence continued for . . . well . . . 18 year so far! I feel more competent in many areas. But every new parent-related challenge has been a first.

The reason we feel so acutely incompetent in some areas in that these are the things that are most important to us. We feel the lack of competence precisely because competence is so important to us.

When I look at the complexity of an aircraft engine, I don’t feel incompetent. But I certainly am. It is overwhelming and annoying and almost miraculous to me. But I have no desire to be good at designing, fixing, or doing anything else with aircraft engines. So while I am supremely incompetent, I don’t feel incompetent.

We need to keep things in perspective. Remember, you only feel incompetent when you seek to be excellent. Incompetence is really a reflection of your desire and commitment to excellence. Being aware of your incompetence is the first step on your road to something amazing in your future!


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