The Competence Myth

by Davis_Kingsley1 min read30th Jun 201930 comments


Social & Cultural Dynamics

When I was a kid, everything seemed sort of goofy, but there was also a sense that it wasn't really supposed to be competent. Yes, a lot of stuff targeted at kids was obviously dumb and bad, but it was for kids after all -- grown-ups knew what they were doing, and once we were grown up we wouldn't have to deal with that!

Once I became a teenager, it became pretty obvious that grown-ups didn't always know what they were doing either. [1] But there was still a sense that at the next level people would finally know what was going on, and that sense persisted for some time - perhaps soon it was "college students", then it was "professors", then it was "people in the private sector", then it was "experienced workers at more professional organizations"... at every level, after every hurdle, it turned out that things were about as slapdash and incompetent as before. It wasn't always the same exact patterns, but there was always something going wrong, and there was never the sense of "okay, now I can fully Trust the System".

Maybe the final straw came when I read or heard something from (IIRC) a Navy SEAL, who said that even in the SEAL teams there were people who were incompetent - in other words, even after extremely stringent training and selection processes that would be illegal for any normal organization to implement, they were still unable to achieve that fabled "okay, finally we're at a stage where everyone knows what they're doing".

Now, I'm not saying every single group is always and forever going to be incompetent - but what I am saying is that I wasted a lot of time thinking "oh, things are messed up now but once I reach this next educational/professional milestone, everything will be fine!" In point of fact that's just not the case, and you should plan accordingly. Almost regardless of what level of vetting and selection you implement, there will be some people who slip through the cracks, and there will be some systems or processes that aren't so good. [2] Lastly, if anyone can think of any large groups or organizations where this isn't the case, please tell me what they are! I'd love to be proven wrong on this.

[1] A school administrator once accused me of drawing something he described as "a pagan symbol from The Da Vinci Code" on some pillars in chalk. It was a simple design that I had made up in a notebook and thought looked good; I had never read The Da Vinci Code and had put up the symbols as a joke. The concept that the administration had investigated it and come to this conclusion was truly bizarre to me.

[2] This isn't an argument that you shouldn't vet or evaluate people at all, but rather one that you're unlikely to achieve perfection in such a process.