Living on the edge of incompetence

Have you ever had days where you felt like this?

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I do. All the time. This is a Facebook status of mine from a couple of years ago. The comment on it is from my uncle, saying that it still applies even if you replace “20s” with “30s”, “40s” and beyond. Surely some people out there do have the tutorial, there are some adults that know what’s going on…right?!

I often feel like I’m missing a handbook I should have on getting things right in life. I still can’t imagine having children because my view of my parents as a child was always that they knew everything and could do anything. A part of me is still waiting to wake up one day and finally just figure life out. Until that happens I’m not a real adult, I cannot be responsible for things; the real adults, the one’s who have done the tutorial, got the handbook, they will have to sort things out.

Unfortunately, there are no “real adults” coming to save us.

There are no adults

If we want things done, then we have to do it ourselves. Being an adult doesn’t mean having it all figured out, it means knowing that you’re going to have to be the one to figure out as much as possible, as best you can.

Somewhat dauntingly, that means if there are big problems in the world to solvethings like eradicating malaria, reducing corruption in politics, stopping climate changethen those are up to us to work on too. I don’t know about you, but I have no idea how I personally can help with those issues at the moment. However, I don’t think that means I can just pass the buck. If I’m not in a position to help at moment, then I need to get better at things so that I can find a way I can help. Some people are much further down their path on this and have expertise that can make a difference. Those are people I can support and learn from.

So how on earth do we get from where we are now to where we need to be? Especially without that pesky handbook to life that someone seems to have hidden.

If you do feel as I do, constantly out of your depth and struggling to stay afloat, I have some good and some bad news for you. The bad news is that this feeling is unlikely to ever go away. The good news is, you shouldn’t want it to.

It turns out that the constant state of strain might actually be a way to improve and achieve the things you want in life, like learning a new language, progressing to the next in your career, or breaking into politics to change climate change policy.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Recently, I read Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore you. In the book (which I really recommend reading) Cal Newport goes into depth on why you shouldn’t focus on trying to follow your passion when it comes to finding a fulfilling career.

Your passion isn’t a secret hidden in your heart of hearts waiting to be found. What you are passionate about is likely to change over time. What were you passionate about when you were sixteen? I think I was passionate about Green Day (but I have no musical talent or desire to be a musician) and Baldur’s Gate (I do still have the desire to be a sorcerer but just maybe that’s not going to happen). Despite being passionate about both these things, neither would really make much of a career. Maybe I could have become a sound engineer working specifically for Green Day if I’d really tried, but I’m pretty sure I’d be fed up with that by now.

Instead, Newport argues that in many surveys on job satisfaction, and from the interviews he conducted with people himself, some of the main ingredients of what makes people happy in their jobs come in two steps: becoming good at what you do, and gaining control and autonomy over your work.

In order then to have a fulfilling career then, you should work on building skills so that you feel more competent and confident and you are in demand. You need to become so good they can’t ignore you. This will give you the leverage to get the things you want from your job. If you’re the company’s top developer, then they’re going to give you the flexible hours and remote working you want if it means they can keep you.

To develop the kind of skills that make you really needed, you need to develop a craftsmen’s mindset, continually trying to improve and continually practising the skills that are most important to whatever you’re currently doing.

Not just any practising will do, however. You need to practice deliberately. Here Cal Newport references another book I’ve read recently: Peak by Anders Ericson. In describing deliberate practice Cal Newport gives an intuitive example, one I experience myself, similar to many of the examples in Peak.  He discusses how he and his friend both started to learn to play the guitar around the same time. Both practised regularly and yet his friend quickly began to vastly outperform him, going on to be an excellent guitar player. What was the difference? Cal (and I when I’ve tried to learn instruments in the past) learnt a few pieces kept playing those over and over, staying where the practice was fun and comfortable. His friend, on the other hand, kept experimenting with harder and harder pieces, pushing himself to play things he couldn’t yet play. According to Ericsson, deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone, pushing yourself to try something beyond your current abilities. This is an uncomfortable place to be but it is where growth happens.


Living on the edge of incompetence

In a recent discussion at work, our manager called this feeling of discomfort “living on edge of incompetence”.

Many of us may be waiting for that day when we’ll be comfortable, on top of things. That day when we finally get it and things become easy. But in reality, that day will likely never come and we shouldn’t want it to because if it does, it means we’ve plateaued and stopped trying to get better.

Instead, we should embrace that feeling of incompetence; that feeling that what we’re doing is currently that bit too hard for us. That way we will have something more like the craftsman’s mindset and be practising deliberately; doing things that are beyond your current abilities as a way to keep improving. While often I’m wondering where my instruction manual for life is, in reality, I should be training for life instead.

That point where every day you feel that bit behind where you should be, that bit out of your depth? That is where improvement happens.


Strengthening your muscles

Think about when you’re training for the gym. You have to put stress on your muscles if you want to get stronger. If you don’t really push yourself then you won’t really improve. This is uncomfortable, it’s hard work but that is where improvement happens. If you’re ‘“phoning it in” as Jillian Michaels would say, then you’re not going to really improve your fitness and really you’re just wasting your time at the gym.

Other goals in life are the same. If you want to achieve something important then you need to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what you think you can do, learning and then pushing again. To tackle the challenges of tomorrow we will need to be smarter, more experienced and more resilient than we are today, and that’s what we’re working on.


No injuries, please.

Much like exercise to keep this improvement up we also need to know our limits. There is a balance to be struck between pushing yourself to do better, to learn and to improve, and pushing yourself to breaking point. Life is a marathon and not a sprint, which means you need to pace yourself.

Continuing the weight training example, if your goal is long-term improvement and muscle gain, you need to know what weight you can lift and for how many reps, to put strain on your muscles without injury. Also, you need to know when to have rest days to let your body recover so that you can really go at it again the next day. If you push yourself so hard at weight training that you pull a muscle and put yourself out of action for weeks, then you’ve slowed your progress in the long run. Growth should be uncomfortable but not damaging.

Ask yourself; am I pushing myself and getting stronger to help me meet my goals, or am I driving myself at such a pace that I am making myself ill?

These limits are going to be different for everyone so there’s no easy answer to this question. It’s easy to end up on the wrong side of the ideal mark on occasion. Sometimes it can be easy for the discomfort to drive you to make excuses; to let this discomfort slow you down to the point where you’re no longer progressing. But especially the diligent among us are likely to go too far the other way, deriding yourself for laziness and pushing yourself to exhaustion. I guess you just need to try and be honest with yourself.

I regularly struggle with this. I’ve been known to push myself too far but then sometimes recoil back too far the other way. I’m not sure I have the balance right at the moment, but I’m working on it.

We are not imposters

All of this probably sounds pretty intimidating.  But I also find it strangely reassuring, even exciting. I imagine everyone out there at some point in their lives has experienced imposter syndrome, that idea that everyone around you knows exactly what they are doing except you. You just somehow tricked the people around you into letting you join the team or be their friend. They just haven’t realised yet how incompetent and awful you are.

And yet, if being on the edge of incompetence is actually a good thing, necessary for growth, then we are all struggling but none of us are imposters. We are real people, real adults, strengthening our ‘muscles’ and moving towards our goals so that we can make a difference at something.


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