How to be Competent

As I’ve written before, I think that one of the most important skills one can have is basic competence. It doesn’t sound as appealing as programming, writing, or engineering, but it’s a rarer skill, and thus more valuable.

Most skills are clearly defined and can be easily taught, which makes them easy to commoditize. Competence, like social skills, is something that’s less easy to define and teach. It’s more of a personal exploration.

I define competence at the ability to get an undefined task done in an efficient manner. The skills that go into that are primarily time management and ability to learn. Someone who is very competent can take a random task in a field in which he’s not an expert, figure out how to get it done, and then complete it. He won’t be able to do it as well or as quickly as an expert, but that’s not the point. The point is to not be totally helpless when working outside of your comfort zone.

So what does it take to be competent?

You start with confidence. If you don’t believe that you can complete the task, you’ll get flustered or sabotage yourself and will either give up or do such a poor job that the task can’t be considered complete. You need to get your confidence from other areas, not from the area in which you’re working. Look for times that you learned how to do a new skill and were able to execute it in a passable manner. If you went from zero to something then, you can do it again.

Next you need to determine what is actually important. Last summer I led the building of a loft inside the yurt on our island. I had never built anything close to that size or level of complexity. Very quickly I determined that the most important factor was safety. If the loft could hold a lot of weight in a secure manner, it would be a success. Second most important was functionality. It had to have sufficient space on top on which to sleep, enough room behind it to store stuff, and to be an appropriate size for installing a kitchen counter on the front.

Maybe most importantly, I determined that how it looked didn’t really matter, and that cost wasn’t a primary concern. Because I’m not an expert, I know that I’m not going to reach perfection, so I had to decide where to allow slack. By ignoring appearance I could build it in the simplest and thus fastest and safest way, and by ignoring cost I could err on the side of bigger hardware and lumber since I didn’t know exactly what would be correct.

Considering what actually matters, you come up with a plan. I called my father to ask about lumber sizes, but didn’t ask him about every last detail. That was the most important part, but the rest I could figure out on my own. You want to only ask people for advice for important things in which they are an expert. This is because you don’t want to burn them out and giving advice and you also want to learn how to search the internet to find your own answers and be comfortable executing even when you’re not totally sure.

Once you have the confidence to start, figure out what actually matters, and have done some basic planning, you start working. The most important part of this phase is recognizing errors early. You will make some errors, as you have no experience in this field, so it’s important to find them. When I was building the loft I laid everything out and realized that we didn’t get enough joist hangers because I miscalculated. By figuring it out early we were able to correct the mistake before the hardware stores closed.

This is the rough plan for a single task, but the real key here is to do things like this as often as possible. The more you do tasks in subjects with which you’re unfamiliar, the more you’ll learn about how you learn and work. That knowledge builds your general competence.

I’m an expert in very few things, but I have a high level of general competence. With no experience and very little guidance I’ve bought property in foreign countries, cooked meals for people, built all sorts of things, bought art, hiked in the wilderness solo, rebuilt a moped engine, and done many other unrelated things. Some of these things were hard and probably none of them came out as well as if a real expert had done them, but that’s not the point.

I meet very few people who are generally competent and it’s always a little shocking to me. If you think you might be one of those people, make it a high priority to develop general competence. It’s a great feeling to know that you can handle anything life throws at you, and you become very useful to other people. Among the friends I have who hire, they all prioritize general competence because it’s essential to autonomy.


Photo is me driving an ROV in Hungry Valley, CA. The amazing folks at taught me how to drive ROVs and then took me out on the trails. As someone who is sort of over the thrill of motorcycling and doesn’t love going offroad in Jeeps, I couldn’t believe how much fun these things are. They have crazy suspensions and can handle any sort of terrain you throw at them— I’d accidentally go flying towards a ditch and the vehicle would just sort of glide over it.

I’m in Budapest now and loving it, although it’s freezing here. Mostly drinking tea, coworking with my friend Brian, and going to the occasional opera or symphony concert.

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