Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Crisis of Competence

Hide It Away - Retribution Gospel Choir (mp3)
Empty Handed - Michelle Branch (mp3)

The Peter Principle is this: Everyone is promoted to his or her level of incompetence.

Or, to put it in greater detail, if you do a job very well, you tend to earn a promotion. So long as you continue performing at high levels, you will continue moving up... until you get promoted into a job you don't do well, at which point you will be stuck in that job.

The Peter Principle is the sad tragedy of how many large companies work. In schools, it can be less invasive because there is simply less upward movement available. (Also therefore, what can hurt schools is a stillness of professional water that leads to the breeding of mosquitoes and/or laziness and/or accepting one’s place.)

I recently had the opportunity to sit at a table with eight others in my profession, where we discussed our variety of options for professional development. Is it better to go to a general conference? A conference covering a more specific topic or area? Or to take a class or course on improving one's skills with a specific software program? Or with a skill like photography?

Until this meeting, I’d never heard of The Crisis of Competence. Here’s how one man at the table explained his situation (I gave up journalism long ago, so this is only at least 80% accurate):
I learned a long time ago it is counterproductive for me to learn new things. Have you ever heard of The Crisis of Competence? You get good at something, and everyone suddenly expects you to be the expert at it, and suddenly everyone is pulling you this way and that way and getting angry at you if you don’t have the time for them. Because, let’s be honest, you’re just one person, but nobody has any patience for that when they’re the ones being told “no.” So I drew a line in the sand and said, “That’s it. I’m done being everyone’s expert.”
Everyone with experience at the table nodded in sympathy. We’ve all been there. We take pictures, therefore everyone thinks we’re Annie Leibovitz, and somehow we can make that “grip ‘n’ grin” into a Rolling Stone cover. We can shoot video, so suddenly we’re Scorsese, as if pointing a camera and pushing that little red button requires a master’s degree, as if it’s a difficult skill to learn.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been stuck in a recession. Maybe it’s because I know we’re all replaceable. Most likely it’s because fearing The Crisis of Competence goes against everything in me that years, strives, hopes, and dreams. I’m supposed to stop improving because I don’t want to tell someone “No”? I’m supposed to stop acquiring new skills because too much might be asked of me?

Yeah, I saw something like that in Spider-Man once...

Of all places, succumbing to a fear of The Crisis of Competence is most heretical in the education world, where we spend every minute and every day expecting and demanding teenagers to learn new and annoying things, to stop leaning on their parents and teachers for the expertise and to forge their own learning path. Why the hell should 16-year-olds believe our "subjects" are important if many of the adults around them can’t even bother with smart boards or Google Docs or flipped classrooms or... well, anything adult educators find as stupid as kids find school?

The Crisis of Competence is just one of those many excuses we use to keep from improving, to protect ourselves from the risk of failure, to still the waters and render ourselves motionless.

I’d rather just have to tell people “no” once in a while.
Or, better yet: “I want to help... but not at the moment.”
Or better yet, “It’s never too late to learn something new for yourself! Just push that red button!”


Sara C said...


troutking said...

I will remind you of this post next time I'm annoying you with questions about iMovie on that computer by your office.

G. B. Miller said...

1} Very sad and very true, especially when you work for the government.

2} Experienced that on a very personal level some several years ago. Redid the filing system at my previous employer and created a very nice spreadsheet that people could use. Did they use it? Nope. Instead they came directly to me for the answers.