The sin of willful incompetence

man holding incandescent bulb

Today’s post is inspired by the novel Atlas Shrugged.

Initially, I had wanted to type up a piece about how whenever we use a medium – any medium, be it social media, blog posts, a book, a phonecall or drawing an image on a cave – we step into a virtual space of sorts. I wanted to write about this interesting idea of how you can feel connected to another person even though they’re not physically there. I wanted to talk about how our brains sync up when we communicate. Instead, today, I need to write this.

Joep has been telling me to read this book for weeks. Except, I couldn’t, because he was still reading it and quoting me pieces he thought were brilliant. I’m reading it now and I cannot help but feel indignant at the ignorant characters in the book who cannot produce anything of high quality that people are willing to pay money for but who claim moral superiority and demand an equal share of something they didn’t earn. However, today, I discovered that there is something that infuriates me way, way more than ignorance.

There is an idea out there called the Four stages of competence. These four stages are

  • unconscious incompetence – The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit.
  • conscious incompetence – Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit
  • conscious competence – The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration.
  • unconscious competence – The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily.
man holding incandescent bulb
What we call value and competence, are all the ways in which we strive to find the pinnacle of our abilities and offer them to the world.

I think this idea is incomplete. First of all, I don’t see this as four stages someone necessarily progresses through. I think people actually do regress, they lose skill or they lose insight in their ability. Then again, the article doesn’t claim that people don’t regress. But more importantly, the idea of four stages of competence assumes that the person intends to provide value. Implicit in the text is that assumption, I think. The person wants to, but they are either able or unable to do so. I interchange the word value with competence, because that is what competence is for, to provide value. If you do not aim to provide value, then whatever it is you aim to do cannot be called competence or a lack thereof. The person we rightfully call ‘unconsciously incompetent’, is a guileless character. They want a job and will do it, but if they are stuck at this phase and never ever move on, it is because they do not research their own mind to figure out to what value is and whether they want to provide it. It is not until you see what value is, that you can begin to move toward ‘conscious incompetence’. You will see the value of what is to be done and conclude that you cannot deliver it. Then, you can decide whether or not you want to. If you do, you start making an effort to improve.

I mentioned that I felt indignant at the ignorance of the unconsciously incompetent depicted in Atlas Shrugged. Last night, I discovered that this is nothing compared to the infuriation I feel at the persona of someone who receives money that could build a superior product – someone who should by all rights have the ability to create such a high quality product or have it created for him by hiring people – and then intentionally does not but pretends that they did. In the novel, there is a moment where Francisco d’Anconia describes how he had opened an ore mine and had paid a builder handsome money to build housing for the workers who were to move there to work the mine. He tells of how the builder received more than enough money to build something great. Instead, they built a dump. A shithole that will decay within years. The way it was described just instantly conveys to you the idea that the paperwork will be of such a quality that you can feel something is wrong but can’t prove it.

What infuriates me is not the incompetence of an administrative assistant who needs two weeks’ notice to deliver the list of contracts that it was their job to keep track of, but who does not understand how to properly file her items and then has to spend days digging through files. What infuriates me is the person who could be great at something, who might have been great at it once, when they reached unconscious competence, but who became morally corrupt because they started prioritizing money over value. They want money and they could deliver something great, but they don’t.

This is, I think, in truth what makes the average person angry about the unfair distribution of wealth: The idea that someone got it but purposefully didn’t deliver value for it. I’ve written today’s blog post to emphasize that distinction. People who got rich by pretending to deliver value, especially those who would have the competence to deliver but choose to spend more energy on hiding that they didn’t deliver, by all means burn them to the ground. I’ll hand you the matches and gasoline.

As shown in the novel, not all wealthy people got their money by holding back on delivering on their promises. In fact, the people who are wealthy in terms of both money and true moral values, became rich exactly because they delivered on all their promises. I think this is what pisses me off whenever our jodiBooks website is inaccurate about what our product can or cannot do. A person who claims that their work is of a certain value, asks that others appraise the work as if it is, but knows full well that it is not, and purposefully misleads others into thinking that it is, I find contemptible. I do not want to be such a person. Therefore, I will strive to correct my mistakes. That is a promise I must make to myself. Delivering value is more important than saving face.