Rob Brens

Musician : Educator : Writer

Rising to your level of incompetence

What follows is a post I wrote in November of 2016 when i used to keep a separate page for blogs. Recently I’ve been prepping some students for upcoming gigs and the “Inner Game” has started to become part of the conversation so I started to comb through some articles I’d written previously to help me deal with various challenges to my mind set.

Did you screw up this week? Or perhaps felt stupid in a particular instance? Oh, you didn’t? Well, why not? Why aren’t you in a situation where this can happen? Is it because you’re really just that good? Or are you just the big fish in a small pond?

Rising to your level on incompetence

“The Peter Principle” was developed by Laurence J Peter as a means of assessing people who are in line for a promotion in the corporate world, which states, “Everyone rises to their own level of incompetence”. This particular phrase has taken on a more ubiquitous use, meaning that something will continue to progress until it hits a ceiling, a point where it no longer functions at the capacity required for a given task.

I bring this up because I found myself in such a situation on more than a few occasions over the past couple of weeks. The initial thoughts in these kinds of situations (for most people, let’s assume) are things like “I’m a moron”, “I don’t belong here”, “I should just settle for less” and so on. I’d say the first way of combating these thoughts is to change our perspective of what “incompetence” and “ignorance” is.

To some, the idea of someone who is ‘ignorant’ or ‘incompetent’ conjures up images of Homer Simpson like characters; people with low intelligence and capability, bumbling their way through life, but I think we can agree that a person’s level of competence isn’t relative to their intelligence but to the situation you place them in. As an example, most people are somewhat incompetent motorcross riders at the age of 8, but are competent at tying their shoelaces. As they say, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will go through life believing it is stupid.

circa 2016; almost had it worked out. As of 2019, I’ve still “almost worked it out”

circa 2016; almost had it worked out. As of 2019, I’ve still “almost worked it out”

Have you really plateaued?

Being aware that you’re always at a given degree of ignorance about anything is a crucial starting point. However, from here, another trap emerges, which is a proportionate development of ability and awareness. What do I mean by this? Plateaus are definitely a major cause of loss of motivation in any field. That feeling where you’ve been stuck in the one place for a long time. There’s many ways of overcoming plateaus, but one way of overcoming is realising you might not actually be experiencing one.

In my musical development, my overcoming of most plateaus came when I realised that while my technical ability on the instrument was increasing, so was my ear, my attention to detail, my awareness. Put simply, I’m getting better, but I’m also finding things wrong that I wasn’t aware of previously, despite those things always being there (doing lots of recording is a good way to discover this).

So what is the end result of this? The illusion of lack of progress. Your ability increases as does your stock of negative awareness, which makes you feel that you’re always at 0. Problems get solved and (apparently) new problems arise.

This might be a strictly musical example but I have no doubt this principle can be applied to most fields. However, just don’t be so quick to assume you’re not progressing because you’re secretly amazing, keep a record of what you’re doing and be objective in your analysis. If you’re looking further into your works of the past and finding you were actually not as good as you thought you were then, then you’re likely on the right track. Humility and realism are key.

Changing your attitude

I first came to understand the phrase about rising to your level of incompetence in Seth Godin’s book, “Tribes” where he reframed the phrase in terms of people rising to a point where their level of fear keeps them from advancing. I’d say a vital factor beyond competence and fear would be attitude.

One person might just need to continue to work on research, analysis and skill development, while another might need to simply develop the courage to face certain situations, be it communicating with certain people, making certain investments or just facing fear of failure and so on.

Attitudes stem from perceptions of ourselves, the world around us and the beliefs associated with them. Competence and fear are relatively easy to conquer as they’re just a matter of time and effort, but if your attitude is bent out of shape, it will be a persistent roadblock if your desire is to make headway.

This could include things such as a sense of entitlement, a poor work ethic, or just generally being negative about the people around you. You’re going to have a real hard time moving forward if you have these kinds of thoughts circulating around your inner monologue. The world doesn’t owe you anything and all you’re going to get is what you put in. Even then, you might not have anything to show for your labour and you have to be ready for that. “Luck”, as they say, is preparation meeting opportunity.

I also witness people being really quick to have a lot to say about people around them. Not necessarily in a negative light (whether or not that is useful requires little to no discussion) but I think worrying too much about other people and what they’re doing is poisonous. Sure it’s good to have people to look up to, but it can be a real drainer if you’re concerned that person A or B is doing so much better than you are. Even worse, if you’re measuring against people who aren’t doing as good, you’re likely to rationalise that you’re doing just fine and don’t need to try much harder. You need to be your own measure of whatever it is you’re defining as winning.

I apologise if a lot of this is really general or even vague, but I didn’t want to go too far down the musical side of things as this can all be applied to any pursuit.

While it may be important to immerse yourself in an environment that forces you to step up, you don’t want to find yourself on a treadmill of self perceived mediocrity. You need to be able to ring the bell as you go, so make sure you’re actually doing something about the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The greatest yard-stick for where you’re at simply needs to be your level of happiness about where you are, where you’re going and most importantly, who you are. Embrace these lessons that being “incompetent” has to offer.