How Being Incompetent = Success


Why on earth would you want to suck more at life?

You should. Trust me.

I’m not advocating for low caliber work, or poor effort. I’m advocating for getting better at being incompetent.

Let me explain. This bizarre train of thought was inspired by Seth Godin. To give credit where credit is due, I will quote something I heard Seth say on a podcast that has turned out to be one of my biggest ah-ha moments of 2017:

"Change creates a feeling you are not the expert (i.e. incompetence). If you don’t like the feeling of incompetence, you will fight the feeling of change. Getting comfortable with the feeling of being incompetent is one of the most important things you can do.”

Now THIS is the kind of thing that will change your life, I think.

Think about how counter this is to how we are most of the time. You make a resume. You send it out, you seem highly qualified and impressive on paper. They hire you for being competent and because you really know what you’re doing with regards to X.

You go to a party, or a dinner, or some sort of gathering. People ask what you do. The conversation turns to any number things: business, stocks, child-rearing, football, craft beer, restaurants. If you are like most people, you want to participate in this conversation — hold court, even — and demonstrate some know-how, some prowess. It feels good to know what you’re talking about. It feels good to have people seem impressed, ask for advice, ask for your business card.

BUT. This is a false sense of security.

If I hire you for a very specific task and outcome — say, as my electrician or knee surgeon — I definitely want you to be competent in that particular task.

But for virtually anything else out there — people, problem-solving — this value placed on confidence and competence is something of a charade. Pretty often in our lives and work we find we are on unknown ground.

Change (and more importantly, growth, by extension) means we find we don’t exactly know what we’re doing.

Now, we have several responses to this scary feeling. One is to build a wall around our vulnerable incompetence, with ego and impressiveness. Don’t let them see you scared. Collect all the more impressive skills and accoutrement so that no one could possibly see you as anything but highly competent.

Another is to just avoid like hell whatever makes us feel terrifyingly incompetent. This works ok, until you realize that it also insulates us from growth in life. “If you don’t like the feeling of incompetence, you will fight the feeling of change.”

Sound familiar?

Are you staying in a job that’s making you miserable or sick? Are you staying in a relationship that isn’t great, but the prospect of leaving is too terrifying? Are you staying single because you’re terrified of feeling vulnerable (i.e. incompetent) in the face of potential rejection, or merely being seen by someone new at all? Are you terrified of trying new things because you will feel like an idiot in front of others?

We ALL experience these fears. Nobody is alone in this.

How we go from there is what counts.

If you decide you want to go with status quo, it feels safe. But it runs the risk of being metaphoric death by live-lobster-in-a-pot-turned-to-boil.

We can hide behind that safety, that feeling of competence, for a good long while. I got this. I know what I’m doing. The known is better than the unknown. It’s not that bad. Our minds can construct a million reasons for staying where we are.

The thing is, when you rest on the feeling of outer competence, you don’t have to deal with the inner worthiness.

But when you remove the charlatan of “I got this,” what you are left with is your inner self. When the stuff on the outside is certain, you don’t have to deal with the inner shakiness. But when the stuff on the outside is a friggin’ scary, unknown mess of “I don’t know WHAT I’m doing,” then the only thing you are standing on is that inner sense of “I am enough, no matter what.”

Shit just got spiritual, I think.

I suspect (because I am in the throes of working on this big time in my own life) that one of the secrets to learning how to be incompetent is developing a solid sense of inner worth. I am ok, no matter what. I am worthy, no matter what. My worth is not based on my job, my status, my finances, my relationship or lack thereof, how people perceive me.

In a way, this gives you the courage to walk headfirst into the change, into the situations in which you feel incompetent, into the feeling of vulnerability that this inevitably produces.

The thing is, I think you can practice incompetence. It’s not like you either have it or you don’t.

One thing is getting used to the humbling feeling of saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll figure it out. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m willing to ask a bunch of questions. That is an inner script you can change and condition.

Another thing you can do is dose the uncomfortableness. Leaving your job might feel like a totally terrifying leap, but maybe you can manage signing up for a new class or lessons in something new. Or signing up for a dating app and going on one coffee date. Or writing a DM to someone on Instagram you don’t know but who seems like they might be a kindred spirit in your new city. (Just did that yesterday.)

Being a fan of Tim Ferriss’s work, I think this is also worth a watch: his TED talk on stoicism and fear setting. He describes an exercise he does for how to make tangible what you’re really afraid of, and then plan on ways to mitigate the potential pain.

I also personally do a little Dialogue With Discomfort. I suppose this is a kind of mindfulness of sorts. It basically involves noticing an emotion (“Oh, hello, there you are, feeling of discomfort about blah blah…”). E.g. I feel mildly terrified about walking into a room of people I don’t know and taking classes on something quite outside my comfort zone (coding and data analysis, happening next week). I imagine at many points feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing, of feeling lost, of asking dumb questions. I notice that feeling, and then I sort of invite it in for tea. Almost like she’s a person who knocks regularly at the door. My natural inclination is to pretend no one is there and avoid answering the door. But instead, I go let her in and sit her down and serve her a cup of tea. OK, there you are Miss Discomfort. I see you. I’m going to look you right in the eye, rather than pretend I didn’t hear the doorbell.

When I taught dance to kids, I would pretty regularly have discussions with them about how to fail. When you throw every middle schooler into dance class, you are bound to have plenty of feelings of discomfort and incompetency. (“Dancing is not my thing.”) I appreciate that it feels terrifying for them. I let them know that they will never get a bad grade for showing effort but being a bad dancer. We would talk about how to keep going when you are really sucking at something. Try again, ask questions, keep a positive attitude, be forgiving of yourself.

I have always loved the Samuel Beckett quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I think this really speaks about learning to fail gracefully. Failing better I think means failing with more humor, more humility, more forgiveness of yourself. And that is certainly a skill that can be practiced and learned.

If all this seems like a lot of work, yes. It is. But here is the upside, the potential gain in all this terrifying, vulnerably squirmy sucking at life. When you shut out the pain of discomfort or feeling of incompetence, you also shut out the opportunity for growth. Because you may never know the experiences you’re not having, or the work you’re not doing, or the people you’re not meeting if you stay safely where you are. “If you don’t like the feeling of incompetence, you will fight the feeling of change.” Nobody, at the end of the day, wants to feel stuck. Nobody wants to stay small. Nobody wants to limit herself. To allow in the growth, we must also allow in the discomfort.

As though the Universe just nodded at me in agreement, I just scrolled to see this on my phone:

“The pain of not doing it was worse than the pain of doing it.” ~Steven Pressfield

So go out there and be epically, amazingly incompetent. You will be more than ok.


Image: From an Erik Bjerkesjo campaign directed by Magnus Liljebergh