The Importance of Competence

Of the four core virtues I talk about in my book, competence may be both the easiest and hardest one for many to understand.  It’s easy to understand because it’s not rocket science to see the importance of being good at your job.  It’s hardest because, well, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is an actual thing.


Photo by Ken Walton
Photo by Ken Walton

The sad thing about competence, however, is that it’s far rarer than it should be.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but in my hometown, competence is so unusual in some industries like fast food that it should qualify is a freaking superpower.  “Do you have x-ray vision?  No?  You’re competent at your job?  THAT’S AMAZING!”

The funny thing is that many of these are the same people complaining about wanting more money for their job because they can’t live off of minimum wage.  I get that, I really do, but if you suck at your job, what do you expect?  Hmmm?

With anything, the creme rises to the top.  It always does.

Take waiting tables, for example.

Let’s be honest, it’s a crap job.  The pay is lousy and it’s even worse when you remember that the minimum wage for waiters is about a third of the standard minimum wage.

However, years ago, a waiter in a restaurant I was working in was offered a job as an assistant manager. He turned it down because it was a pay cut.  Due to his tips, he was making something like $30,000 at the time, and this was the mid-late 90’s.  That’s over $44,000 in today’s dollars.

This waiter got that kind of money because he was damn good at his job.  So good, in fact, that he was offered a chance to rise up in the ranks.  The thing was, he was so good at that particular job that it made less financial sense to move up that ladder.

Eventually, he did become an assistant manager, but I was gone from that job by that time.

The creme rose to the top.

I’m a full-time writer.  While I do this blog for no money, I write books that do pay, and I write for other websites where I do get paid.  I have no college degree in anything, yet I’ve be featured on some of the biggest sites in my field and I support my family while sitting at home and making money.

Now, I’m not going to say that the creme rose to the top, but I will say that I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I sucked at what I’m doing.  In fact, there are thousands of people doing it for free who wish they were where I am today.

I won’t say I’m better than all of those people because I doubt that’s true, but I’m competent at what I do and I’ve been somewhat aggressive at chasing down opportunities.  However, no matter how aggressive I was, without competence, I’d still be banging away for free and hoping I’d find some kind of success.

The key thing here is to remember that competence is what gets you where you want to be, no matter where that is.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to truly assess one’s own competence.  To use myself as an example again, I figure I’m competent only because of the opportunities I’ve landed with major websites.  I can’t easily tell whether I’m good or not.  Instead gauge my ability by my opportunities thus far.  Then again, what I do isn’t exactly rocket science.

So how do you assess your own competence?  Obviously, if you’re getting promotions and pay raises, you’re probably very competent at what you do.

If not, however, that doesn’t mean you’re not competent.  After all, there are bad cultures at many companies where people get raises or promotions due to factors that have nothing to do with performance.

Further, annual reviews don’t necessarily tell you much.  One company I worked for told my boss that everyone’s annual review needed to be within a certain range of scores.  No one could be a perfect employee since there is always room for improvement (which makes some sense), but no one could be a crap employee.

How in the hell are you supposed to learn from that?

I can’t tell you how you should go about accurately assessing your competence at your job, mostly because each industry is just different enough that my advice would probably be useless.

Instead, I’ll tell you to simply work hard and keep learning.  The more knowledge you have in your industry, the better off you are.  Places you’re making mistakes will be revealed and allow you to correct those, and as new information is available, you’ll know it as well.

The important thing to remember is that competence is on you, and no one else.  No one in this world owes you a thing just because you exist.  If you want anything in life, you have to earn it.

No one cares how much you went into debt for a degree, no one cares how much your student loan payments are, and no one cares about much of anything.  Not when it comes to giving you a job.  What they care about is simple: Can you do it and do it well?

Make damn sure the answer to that is a resounding “Hell yes!”



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