Undeniable Competence: How to Be Superb at What You Do

“No human being will work hard at anything unless they believe that they are working for competence.” — William Glasser, American psychiatrist.

“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.


Undeniable Competence:  How to Be Superb at What You Do by Laura Stack #productivity

These three syllables mean everything in business, art, and industry alike, embodying as they do an individual’s overall capability as a practitioner of their chosen field. Like the older terms “able seaman” or “journeyman,” competence signifies an individual’s capacity to handle all aspects of a particular job, and even in our overhyped world remains something to be proud of.

Yet competence is a moving target, since it doesn’t always translate from one task to another—and in the modern business era, the tasks that define your competence will inevitably change over time. When some new job requirement pops up, you may discover you can’t even manage the minimal standards right out of the gate. Don’t let this distress or stop you, because given enough effort and desire, you can bridge that gap—and if you want to stay at the top of your game, you must.

The PATCH Factor

If you encounter a new pothole in your competence path, don’t just edge around it and move on. You’ll face it repeatedly in the future, and one day when you forget to pay attention, you’ll hit it and give yourself a good rattling at the very least. While I believe in focusing on your strengths, you do have to get a grip on all significant aspects of your job before you can call yourself truly competent. Therefore, you have no choice but to PATCH that hole. You’ll require these five ingredients to do so:

1. Perseverance. Search unceasingly for new ways to improve your performance. Just buckle down and try harder. Study up on the issue, like you have an upcoming midterm that could make or break your career—because it can. Find a mentor who can show you the ropes and tolerate a few mistakes. Read widely about your field and apply what you’ve learned from all sources. Ask for training, and take courses in your spare time—and above all, don’t give up until you’ve become competent at the task you’ve fallen short on.

2. Attitude. Maintain an optimistic, hardworking attitude at all times. A cheerful willingness can make up for a great deal, especially when tied to perseverance. If you have trouble doing part of your job, be willing to keep pounding at it until you find a way to perform with the greatest proficiency you can muster. It’s okay to be weaker at some things than others, but you can’t call yourself competent if you can’t do everything required of you. Imagine a firefighter unable to handle a firehose or a writer who can’t spell; could you call either competent?

3. Talent. In my opinion, this represents the least important of the PATCH ingredients; but to max out your competence, you need a little. And you probably do have some talent for some aspect of the item you’ve failed at. Find out what it is and leverage it to maximum capacity. Suppose you’re a graphics artist who just can’t “get” vector graphics, while at the same time displaying a prize-winning talent for CAD drawings or Photoshop manipulation. You can almost certainly apply some of the strategies you already use for your best work to your weak points.

4. Common sense. Hone your native horse sense to a razor-sharp edge, so you can cut away the nonsense that holds you back. Common sense requires the application of tight self-discipline. Don’t waste work time you could use to hone your competence on procrastination, busywork, gossiping, politics, or other internal distractions. Block out or otherwise limit external distractions like noise, email alerts, social media, phone calls, and unexpected drop-ins. Refuse when others try to dump more than your fair share of work on you. In short, be smart about how you use your time.

5. Health. Let’s face it: any decent white collar job challenges you in ways both mental and physical, and you can’t do your best work when you feel bad. If becomes even more difficult to maintain and repair your competence under such conditions. Long hours, constant change, the go-go-go mentality—all can push you to your limits. So build your stamina by eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and keeping yourself sane and happy. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for any of these; you’ll have to experiment, learning what’s best for you by trial and error. Then stay persistent and flexible enough to both keep at it and adapt as necessary.

Quiet Competence

Once upon a time, you were incompetent at walking; but when was the last time you had to consciously think about the skills necessary to put one foot in front of the other and maintain your balance? Keep working hard at patching your competence holes and refuse to accept “good enough,” and you will achieve true competence someday. You may not become the world’s greatest at whatever it is, but no one will be able to deny your ability.



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