What Happened to Competence?

The feeling of satisfaction you achieve by competently mastering the world around you cannot be matched. So why doesn't everyone pursue life this way?

Does incompetence make you angry? It does me — much more so than a given situation’s practical consequences would seem to justify. So what’s going on?

Incompetence isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s (usually) the result of some gross immorality; often a long-standing policy of refusing to exert the effort to do something right. I’m not referring here to some occasional mistake, however bad the effect. What I mean is the habitual, “just didn’t want to think about it,” “failure to do what can be reasonably expected” sorts of actions caused by what the Greeks referred to as akrasia (literally, "bad mixture," the Greek term for the character flaw of incontinence or weakness of the will, the condition in which an agent is unwilling to perform actions that are known to be right).

The times I’ve experienced this are, unfortunately, not rare. Though never overwhelmingly popular, in times past, a man often took pride in doing things well. Even when the task may have been mundane or relatively unimportant, it was usually done as well as time permitted (hence the once-popular homily “anything worth doing is worth doing well”).

No complex proof is required to show that doing something requires effort. Doing something well requires lots of effort, and doing things superlatively requires years of dedication for all but the few who are just wired differently. Such effort is always a combination of the mental and physical; emphasis more on one than the other, depending on the circumstances. Most people, surprisingly, are pretty willing to exert great physical effort. Mental effort is much less often greeted with enthusiasm.

Why this should be is somewhat mysterious.

Few things in life are more pleasurable than solving a differential equation, forming a sound argument, or writing a tight essay. Or, if you prefer something less analytical, and more creative, it’s a joy to write a novel, create a beautiful garden, or deliver a fine stage performance. For those of a more practical bent, it can be deeply satisfying to fix a chain saw or make a fence. These everyday examples show that such opportunities are available to nearly everyone. Grand and glorious as some activities are, such as engineering a radically different kind of bridge, composing a symphony, or developing a comprehensive new philosophy, one can still acquire similar feelings carrying out more common pursuits.

There are literally hundreds of different human goals — many that are much more complex than these examples — that can give that chest-suffusing feeling that comes from exercising our powers well. One needn't be a genius or the world's finest craftsman to achieve this state.

Given this, it’s almost incomprehensible why there is so much incompetence around; it’s almost as if no one even wants to have a good time doing a good thing.

What solves the mystery, of course, is something referred to above. Competence requires sustained mental (and physical) effort, emphasis on sustained, even more emphasis on mental. Using one’s mind to generate an idea, work out its consequences, put it into action, and polish the results never was the world’s idea of fun; it was always the activity of a minority.

But the level to which things have sunk hasn’t been seen for hundreds of years. From the Middle Ages (more or less) until about fifty years ago, the average skilled craftsman was considerably above his fellows; hence the high value placed on apprenticeships in past centuries.

As a side note, the Latin word 'amateur' originally had a meaning opposite to that which is in common use today. It designated someone who did something for the 'love of doing,' and who was therefore presumed to have a highly developed skill, as distinguished from a 'professional' who did it 'merely' for money. The latter was presumed not to care enough about the doing, as opposed to the payment, to have achieved excellence.

As a further side note, this indicates the level to which modern, mixed-economy capitalism has, unfortunately, devolved back towards the Middle Ages. For example, many corporate executives can be seen as 'professionals' of this type, as distinguished from their skilled workers, who generally would like to take pride in their work, but are often discouraged from doing so.

In previous centuries, if you weren’t minimally competent at something — farming, some trade, amusing the powerful — you simply died. (These days amusing the powerful is more popular than many other options.) In Western countries today, food is so easy to get, and shelter cheap enough, that most people are going to survive no matter where they fall on the “willingness to exert” scale.

Now note that I’m not saying life has gotten too easy, and people no longer have sufficient motivating incentives to gain skills. The passion to use one’s powers to accomplish some task well comes from (and always has) the inside. True enough, the world can make it harder or easier; but it was never easy, and overcoming the difficulties used to be part of the fun. (Admittedly, it’s a lot more interesting to figure out how to make a straight, solid-standing fence than to figure out what will please your boss today.)

There are, of course, many other causes (most outside one's immediate control) pushing things in this direction. An absurd level of government control of individual choices, a highly destructive educational system, a worldwide ethical pragmatism, and a host of other phenomenon discourage individual effort.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is: An uncomfortably large percentage of individuals today just flat out don’t care enough to do a good job. Whether fixing your plumbing or resolving a mistake on your credit report, whether creating a computer system or plowing the snow out of your driveway, making the effort to do it right just isn’t high on the list.

But if you’ve experienced that feeling of satisfaction I talked about earlier, you’re not likely ever to be one of them. In my experience, that feeling is well worth the effort needed to produce it, and I don't know anyone who won't appreciate that you did — starting with you.

Jeffrey Perren is a professional writer with a background in Physics and Philosophy. His latest novel, The Endangered Specie (in progress), is the story of a bridge engineer whose work is opposed by a group of radical environmentalists.

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.