How Competent Are You?

Competent is a word that describes people who know what they are doing. When everyone raves about your apple pie compared to other apple pies they’ve eaten, you become known as an authority on the subject of apple pies. But what about the baker who thinks her apple pie is just as good as yours, maybe even better, in spite of evidence to the contrary? This is a sign of incompetence, according to a study done by researchers at Cornell University.

The researchers found that most incompetent people do not know they are incompetent. Ironically, they are often more confident of their abilities than people who do well. They overrate themselves because they lack what every competent person possesses: self-monitoring skills. In other words, competent people are self-correcting, and they are open to correction. They also have a sense of humor.

Absent comparisons, highly able people tend to underestimate their abilities because they assume everyone is doing as well as they are doing. This may cause them to under-market themselves, and wind up reporting to people who are not as capable as they are.

The inability to self-correct, ask for feedback, and to understand humor explains why the obtuse among us persist in telling jokes that are not funny, and why they dominate conversations at dinner parties and company picnics. Politeness keeps most people from telling these people the truth. When someone is brave enough to offer constructive criticism, they dismiss or reject it, or find fault with the critic. It is inevitable that incompetent people in positions of authority will wreak havoc in others’ lives, until those who helped them get there remove them from power.

Authority Conflicts

As you can see from the above definition of incompetence, if you have ongoing conflicts with authority figures that are not up to the job this may mean you need to move into the authority role. If you fear the responsibility that goes with power, however, you may hesitate because the support role feels safe and familiar. True, but if you have the talent and the open mindedness every competent person possesses, holding yourself back will be frustrating. It may even lead to chronic ailments, mysterious aches and pains, or a general malaise that indicates you are blocking creativity’s desire to show the world what it can do.

Showing the world what you can do does not necessarily mean that you are up on a platform telling everyone how it’s done. The desire to be seen as better than everyone means the ego is running your life. Although public speaking could be your niche if you have something to say that would help people, and if you are an extrovert, meaning you get energized when you are around a group of people. Or you may need to put your name in the hat for a leadership role so that you stop resenting “leaders” who are not as capable as you are.

If you are an introvert, however, the last thing you want to do is lead, or be led. In your case, you need a creative project that you work on by yourself with minimal supervision. This could be an apple pie business you begin at the local farmers market. Perhaps you offer your services to businesses or individuals who need what you know to reach their emotional and material goals. Or it could be a fiction or non-fiction book you’ve always wanted to write, but were afraid to begin.

Concrete Clues to Competence

If you are not sure about what comes easily to you, ask people whose judgment you trust what they think you do naturally and well. You don’t even have to think about what you are doing, you just do it. As the Cornell study showed about able people, unless you have a basis of comparison, you may take your skills for granted.

As an example, think of people you know whose gifts languish on the shelf because they believe they are not that good; when, in fact, they would learn they are better than average if they would just ask for feedback. Based on what you know of them, what is holding these people back from putting what they know out in the marketplace? Are they burdened with taking care of everyone’s needs but their own? Do they fear the envy that goes with success?

Next, ask a couple of experts to assess what you do well, whether that is speaking, writing, organizing or baking an apple pie. You may have to pay these people for their time, but what you hear will save you time, money and regret.

If you still need more proof of your competence, notice what you concentrate on until you get it right, whatever “it” is. You are not distracted by what others are doing; your goal is to be the best you can be. When you need help, you welcome constructive criticism.

Once you discover what you do well, and that you are more capable than you gave yourself credit for, you will have the confidence to find the niche where you can reach your full potential. Not only will you be happy, so will everyone who benefits from your competence.

Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is workwithpassion.com.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is workwithpassion.com