How to tell if you are competent

Reading this article (hat tip: LNMOP) brings back memories… of people who I used to work with.  Supremely incompetent, yet quite self-assured.  So I’ve had almost 6 years to ponder how one determines if one is incompetent or not.

First and foremost, as the people on American Idol can demonstrate, there’s nothing that proves your incompetence (or not) more than feedback from a panel of experts.  For example, successfully defending a PhD thesis would be a reasonable demonstration that you are not incompetent in your field of study.

But not every career path has panels of experts who will judge you honestly.   So how else can you know?

Well, you might find someone who is demonstrably competent in their field, and seek to work for them.  If a clearly competent person gives you work, and praise, and more work, then you are almost certainly competent.

How do you know if someone is demonstrably competent?  Well, for starters, they will almost certainly be financially well-off, unless they are a blues guitar player.   They are often busy with successful projects that make money.
But most of all, competent people are rarely cynical about what they do, the industry they’re in, the way the market works.  They will have issues – criticisms, commentary, etc.  But they won’t be intensely negative about the state of their day-to-day life.  In my experience, this is the best way to tell the difference – when you experience setbacks and challenges, do you blame the world/industry/others or do you also reflect on your own actions, and what you might do differently next time?  Incompetent people don’t self-reflect, or if they do, they do it half-heartedly, as a checkmark in the “things to do before you blame the world.” list. Incompetent people grow more and more cynical as they grow older, because they feel that the world is set against them – how could it not be, given how competent they are?  I’m good at what I do – it must be the world that isn’t right.

Do not work for cynical, bitter people.   Do not work with them, if you can help it.  Don’t even associate with them, unless you have to because their spouse is a friend of your spouse.


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