Real competency means living life well

Let me ask you this: How many times in the last week has your life been interrupted, taken off track, or simply made more annoying by basic incompetence? It seems to me lately that many of our problems, large or small, can be traced back to this singular cause—as endemic in the halls of power as with the big-box retail clerk who sends you down the plumbing aisle when what you really want is a can of paint. (Somehow, the clerk bothers me less than the elected official. At least he isn’t drawing a six-figure, taxpayer-funded salary while running a bad state economy further into the ground)

Back around 150 years ago, the word “competence” had a more complex meaning than it does today. Then, it meant more than a basic level of skill and ability to do a job well. It also meant a basic level of income or investment needed to lead a comfortable and respectable life. Just enough.

We have a myth about the gold-rush pioneers that imagines them gambling everything to come west and get really rich, quick. Sure, that was true of some, but the vast majority came out here to earn a “competency”—dig up and save enough gold or silver to go back home, buy some land and build a house, attract a nice wife, and get the kids pointed in the right direction. The important thing was not owning more stuff, but in being independent—in not having to work for a factory owner, or rent farmland from a landowner.

This radically different notion of success seems quaint compared to our endless striving for “more.”

Prior to all the bubbles bursting, it seems most of us worked more to get more—the emphasis always on quantity, very little on quality. So we have McMansions, big cars, walk-in closets full of clothes, big-screen TVs—or, we want them. Expense does not equal quality in many of these cases. The emphasis seems to be on appearance, rather than quality or durability.

Like our stuff, our work—emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. We have learned to equate being busy and stressed with working hard (therefore, important equals successful), but increasingly few of us stop to ask whether we are accomplishing a meaningful task in the most efficient way possible. Indeed, efficiency in some very dysfunctional business contexts could be taken as a problem—if you do your work well, elegantly and efficiently, and therefore are finished before your peers, you are likely to receive more work. I do not hear much these days about rewarding efficient professionals with more time off to hang out with the family. All of these problems are getting worse in the recession; with those hanging on to their jobs having more responsibilities as furloughs and layoffs pile more work on top of more.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather was a podiatrist—he went to work every day, joked around with his clients, prescribed long walks on the beach to improve their foot health. Naturally, his patients loved him. He didn’t bring his work home with him or worry about it, nor was he the most famous foot doctor ever. He just did his job well, whether in his office or puttering in the yard.

We hear a lot these days about learning to do more with less in terms of our material lifestyle. We might benefit from applying the same concepts to our work. Imagine how much easier things would be if we all could count on each other being competent.