The Competence Myth

When I was a kid, ev­ery­thing seemed sort of goofy, but there was also a sense that it wasn’t re­ally sup­posed to be com­pe­tent. Yes, a lot of stuff tar­geted at kids was ob­vi­ously dumb and bad, but it was for kids af­ter all—grown-ups knew what they were do­ing, and once we were grown up we wouldn’t have to deal with that!

Once I be­came a teenager, it be­came pretty ob­vi­ous that grown-ups didn’t always know what they were do­ing ei­ther. [1] But there was still a sense that at the next level peo­ple would fi­nally know what was go­ing on, and that sense per­sisted for some time—per­haps soon it was “col­lege stu­dents”, then it was “pro­fes­sors”, then it was “peo­ple in the pri­vate sec­tor”, then it was “ex­pe­rienced work­ers at more pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tions”… at ev­ery level, af­ter ev­ery hur­dle, it turned out that things were about as slap­dash and in­com­pe­tent as be­fore. It wasn’t always the same ex­act pat­terns, but there was always some­thing go­ing wrong, and there was never the sense of “okay, now I can fully Trust the Sys­tem”.

Maybe the fi­nal straw came when I read or heard some­thing from (IIRC) a Navy SEAL, who said that even in the SEAL teams there were peo­ple who were in­com­pe­tent—in other words, even af­ter ex­tremely stringent train­ing and se­lec­tion pro­cesses that would be ille­gal for any nor­mal or­ga­ni­za­tion to im­ple­ment, they were still un­able to achieve that fabled “okay, fi­nally we’re at a stage where ev­ery­one knows what they’re do­ing”.

Now, I’m not say­ing ev­ery sin­gle group is always and for­ever go­ing to be in­com­pe­tent—but what I am say­ing is that I wasted a lot of time think­ing “oh, things are messed up now but once I reach this next ed­u­ca­tional/​pro­fes­sional mile­stone, ev­ery­thing will be fine!” In point of fact that’s just not the case, and you should plan ac­cord­ingly. Al­most re­gard­less of what level of vet­ting and se­lec­tion you im­ple­ment, there will be some peo­ple who slip through the cracks, and there will be some sys­tems or pro­cesses that aren’t so good. [2] Lastly, if any­one can think of any large groups or or­ga­ni­za­tions where this isn’t the case, please tell me what they are! I’d love to be proven wrong on this.


[1] A school ad­minis­tra­tor once ac­cused me of draw­ing some­thing he de­scribed as “a pa­gan sym­bol from The Da Vinci Code” on some pillars in chalk. It was a sim­ple de­sign that I had made up in a note­book and thought looked good; I had never read The Da Vinci Code and had put up the sym­bols as a joke. The con­cept that the ad­minis­tra­tion had in­ves­ti­gated it and come to this con­clu­sion was truly bizarre to me.

[2] This isn’t an ar­gu­ment that you shouldn’t vet or eval­u­ate peo­ple at all, but rather one that you’re un­likely to achieve perfec­tion in such a pro­cess.