The Decline and Fall of Competence: A Lament

A friend recently shared an article with me. The writer is a hotshot professor whose speciality is behavioural psychology. He’s taught in many places including the University of London, LSE and NYU, so he probably knows exactly what he’s saying.

However, when I read the article (and I strongly suggest you do, a link to the article is right here), I had a strange feeling within me. The writer suggests the trio of self-branding, entrepreneurship and hyperconnectivity are the holy trinity of success. He’s probably got a lot of studies, experience and gut-instinct backing him up. Else Harvard Business Review would surely decline to publish him. But somehow, deep within myself, I felt that there was something missing from his formula. Something very essential. Formative to the idea of success.

Competence.

I know, I know. Sounds obvious, does it not? Well, in this age of short-cuts, I’d say what’s obvious and what’s not is very debatable and common sense is a privilege of the few. So forgive me if I lash out at the author for omitting the most essential of ingredients from the recipe of success. I’ll repeat it for those still in denial or those lacking this so-called common sense.

Competence.

In other words, a body of work. In this age, it’s seen as important for us to have worked in many places, accumulated experience and landed recommendations from those at the very top. I don’t deny being guilty of it myself. But while I was considering joining an organisation (Which accepted me after an interview, I may add. Wasn’t one of those start-ups run by a friend who takes you in as a favour), I realised that the only reason I was joining it was to show people that I’d done some work in some organisation. Granted, the organisation was doing work I was interested in, but as someone asked me after my request for advice, “Will you gain anything useful from this job?”

“Experience and contacts,” was my quick and prompt response.

“Are those all you’re working for?” came the reply, pat. “Contacts are almost never an incentive for joining somewhere unless you’re getting linked to someone like Bill Clinton or Al Gore. So is the experience worth it?”

“Surely! After all, what experience isn’t?”

A pause followed this latest statement of mine. My advisor looked at me, as if sizing me up. “Any experience,” came the slow reply, “which does not contribute to your intellectual advancement.”

My blank expression prompted a sigh. “Any experience,” the reply continued, “which does not leave you with something meaningful. So you organised a conference. So what? How many people in the world do that? Many. Instead, what if you helped an author write a book on the rise of Babur and the Mughals in India. How many people do that? Not many. How many students do that? Very few. How many engineering students do that?”

“None,” I replied lamely, getting the point.

And yet, some people still aren’t aware of the point just explained. While helping write such a book isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea, people will simply point out that I’m reiterating a point the author of the HBR blog already made, namely self-branding. No. It’s not about uniqueness. At the end of the day, what someone has to understand is that no matter what you do, no matter what you think of yourself, the naked ambition to be seen as the most connected, the most well-known and the most enterprising student among your peers simply isn’t enough. Doing something simply for the sake of becoming this person I just described is stupid, because people can see through it.

I agree with one thing the author says. And that is that in this age it’s better to market yourself as an indispensable product. It’s a very old adage in the game of power that as long as you don’t make yourself indispensable to the ruler, you’re nothing but a pawn in the chess game played in his court. But rather than focussing on entrepreneurship, connections and branding yourself, one should be focussed on providing substance to that shiny outer covering.

Many people will point out the very famous case of Edison and Tesla. The two titans of their age were at war over something very fundamental in their time, namely the case of AC power vs. DC power. AC power was clearly superior (hence our usage of it now), but Edison won at that time. Why? Because he could brand himself better than the opposition, because he could outsmart Tesla, the reclusive scientist, in the realm of advertising and contacts, despite Tesla being the bigger genius.

But Tesla is as different from the modern student entrepreneur as Roosevelt was from Stalin. Tesla was all substance, no branding. The modern student entrepreneur is teetering dangerously towards losing all substance. A wide generalisation and exaggeration to be sure, but true in its essentials.

Competence outscores every other point you may have in your favour. You could know the prime minister for all someone cares, but as long as the PM doesn’t strong-arm him into accepting you, he won’t take you into that company as his VP.

Hence, don’t take that famous Nike motto to heart, “Just Do It!” Stop. Think. Look around. Think again. And when you finally decide to take the plunge, be satisfied that what you’re about to do is the best choice you can make at the moment you’re making it.

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