The Horror of Competence

It can happen to any of us.  We're there, minding our own business, probably giving someone advice, and we're struck with the absolutely terrifying realization of our own competence.

It hits us that we know what we're doing.  We are struck by the realization of how much we know and what skills we have.  Our ability to effectively leverage our history and experience looms large in our mind.  We realize we're really quite competent.

This of course, is a terrible blow.

First, we try to deny it.  We can't be competent when we recall that time we brushed our teeth with skin cream.  We've got all these things we do terribly wrong in our lives, or the right things we never did.  We cannot, simply, be competent.

This phases passes as, with heavy hearts, we realize everyone does boneheaded things.  The great minds of history probably screwed up things at some point anyway.

The next phase, once we accept the burden of being reasonably competent humans is to look back on our lives.  This results in us listing our many screw-ups of past months, years, and decades.  This listing can go on for some time, and may be convincing enough for some people to go back to assuming they're really not that competent.

This state doesn't always last.  Usually people go on and accept that they may indeed be competent as they got this far despite their own ridiculous mistakes, and perhaps can prevent such mistakes in the future or fix ones made in the past.  They realize they're not so bad.

The present and past accepted by the person suddenly burdened with the realization of their own aptitude, they then focus on the future, and feel a sudden terror of how bad it will be.  Clearly with their current lousy plans and ridiculous ideas, they're doing everything wrong.  They're standing on a great cliff overlooking an ocean of potential future idiocy.

At this point the poor victim of self-realization finds they must accept that their own competence may mean they won't mess the future up.  Yes, there's much they can and should do different.  Our current plans are not sufficient, but if we are as competent as we dread we are, we can change that.

Finally, the competent person wonders if they really are somehow both competent and stupid.  They indeed can do the right thing, but often haven't and certainly didn't plan to in the future.  In time, they usually realize everyone can be that way.

Thus, finally, the poor soul accepts their own ability to actually get things done.

So, buck up.  You are quite likely competent, and it's OK to accept that.  You can, despite past mistakes, current idiocies, and badly-made plans for the future, get it together.  Stop dreading your competence and accept it.

It's the only way you can deal with it.

– Steven Savage