The company I work at is a pretty great place, and it’s attracted some pretty great people – so if your name isn’t yet on the list of “the Greats” it can sometimes be a little intimidating. There’s a running joke that half the people at the firm have Impostor Syndrome, a pernicious condition in which people become convinced they are frauds, despite objective evidence of their competence.
I definitely get that from time to time – not just at the Search Engine That Starts with a G, but previously in my career. In fact, just about as far back as people have been paying me money to do what I do, I’ve had a tape loop of negative thoughts running through my head, saying, “incompetent … you’re incompetent” over and over again.
Until today, as I was walking down the hall, when I thought of Impostor Syndrome, when I thought of what my many very smart friends would say if I said that, when I thought of the response that they would immediately give: not “you’re wrong,” which they of course might say, but instead “well, what do you think you need to do to do a good job?”
Then, in a brain flash, I realized incompetence is just another excuse people use to justify their own inaction.
Now, I admit there are differences in competence in individuals: some people are better at doing things than others, either because of experience, aptitude, or innate talent (more on that bugbear later). But unless the job is actually overwhelming – unless simply performing the task at all taxes normal human competence, and only the best of the best can succeed – being “incompetent” is simply an excuse not to examine the job, to identify the things that need doing, and to make a plan to do them.
Most people, in my experience, just want to do the things that they want to do – and they want to do their jobs the way they want to do them. If your job is well tuned towards your aptitudes, this is great: you can design a nice, comfortable life.
But often the job you want to do requires more of you than doing things the way you want to do them. I’m a night owl, I enjoy working late, and I often tool in just before my first midmorning meeting – but tomorrow, for a launch review of a product, I’ll be showing up at work a couple hours early to make sure that everything is working before the meeting begins. No late night coffee for you.
Doing what’s necessary to show up early seems trivial, and obvious, to most people who aren’t night owls, but it isn’t trivial, or obvious, to most people that they don’t do what’s necessary in many other areas of their life. The true successes I know, in contrast, do whatever it takes: switching careers, changing their dress, learning new skills – even picking out the right shirts, if they have to meet with people, or spending hours shaving thirty seconds off their compile times, if they have to code software.
Forget individual differences. If you think you’re “incompetent” at something, ask yourself: what would a “competent” person do? What does it really take to do that job? If it involves a mental or physical skill you don’t have, like rapid mental arithmetic or a ninety-eight mile-per-hour fastball, then cut yourself some slack; but otherwise, figure out what would lead to success in the job, and make sure you do that.
You don’t have to do those things, of course: you don’t have to put on a business suit and do presentations. But that doesn’t mean you’re incompetent at giving presentations: it means you weren’t willing to go to a business wear store to find the right suit or dress, and it means you weren’t willing to go to Toastmasters until you learned to crack your fear of public speaking. With enough effort, you can do those things – if you want to. There’s no shame in not wanting to. Just be honest about why.
That goes back to that other bugbear, talent.
When people find out I’m a writer, they often say “oh, it must take so much talent to do that.” When I protest that it’s really a learned skill, they usually say something a little more honest, “no, no, you’re wrong: I don’t have the talent to do that.” What they really mean, though they may not know it, is that they don’t want to put in the ten thousand hours worth of practice to become an expert.
Talent does affect performance. And from a very early age, I had a talent with words: I was reading soon after I started to walk. But, I assure you, if you read the stuff I wrote at an early age, you’d think I didn’t have the talent to be a writer. What I did have was a desire to write, which translated into a heck of a lot of practice, which developed, slowly and painfully, into skill.
Talent does affect performance. Those of us who work at something for decades are always envious of those people who seem to take to something in a flash. I’ve seen it happen in writing, in computer programming, and in music: an experienced toiler is passed by a newbie with a shitload of talent. But even the talented can’t go straight from raw talent to expert performance: it still takes hundreds or thousands of hours of practice to turn that talent into a marketable skill.
When people say they don’t have talent, they really mean they don’t have the desire to do the work. And that’s OK. When people say they aren’t competent to do a job, they really mean they don’t want to think through what it takes to get the job done, or having done so, don’t want to do those things. And that’s OK too.
Not everyone has to sit in a coffeehouse for thousands of hours working on stories only to find that their best doesn’t yet cut it. Not everyone needs to strum on that guitar for thousands of hours working on riffs only to find that their performance falls flat on the stage. Not everyone needs to put on that suit and polish that smile for thousands of hours working on sales only to find that they’ve lost yet another contract. No-one is making you do those things if you don’t want to.
But if you are willing to put those hours in, you have a shot at the best selling story, the tight performance, the killer sale.
And a shot at it is all you get.
Pictured: Lenora, my cat, in front of a stack of writing notebooks and writing materials, and a model of the Excelsior that I painted by hand. It’s actually a pretty shitty paint job. Not because I don’t have talent – but because I didn’t want to put hundreds of hours in learning how to paint straight lines on a model. I had writing to do.