The Dangers of Coveting Competence

I am fearful of not appearing competent. This is one of my biggest fears and it looms over me to varying degrees. The notion of competence, of being competent, has formed a core foundation of how I have understood myself probably since I had the capacity to be self-reflective. If you look up the word competence the Oxford Dictionary defines is as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently”. Personally I’d prefer the definition to be reworded to replace “or” with “and” – but this is a small quarrel that I am sure the curators of the Oxford English Dictionary would have no interest in. I genuinely feel a sense of joy and comfort when I read the synonyms for competence – “capability, “ability”, “capacity”, “proficiency” “skilled”, “proficient”, “aptitude”, “mastery”, expertise” and my personal favourite “adroitness”. I think if I was to have a tombstone it might read (in what would certainly be an exercise of posthumous self-indulgence),“She had an adroitness in all that she pursued”.

However, the problem with the unrelenting desire to appear competent is that it fuels an uncomfortable, glaring awareness of one’s own shortcomings, which is accompanied by inexorable cognitive dissection of those pockets of vulnerabilities, which of course at any time could undo the coveted competent you.

Let me provide an example. I am currently leading a 2-year multi-site project with a budget that is worth more than 6 years of my salary. The process of setting up and leading a project that relies on numerous other stakeholders and their intersecting interests feels to me like trekking through a familiar landscape. In fact stepping into the project, from what had become a largely clinical role in my organisation, felt like putting on a well worn, comfortable, old pair of runners. In essence, this role is not new ground. However, such familiarity does little to quell the moments of sheer panic that hijack my inner cognitive workings, when the mere (and yes, I realise unlikely) possibility arises that I may appear incompetent to my peers in something I am a fucking specialist in!

So at the first project team meeting, which was really a meet-and-greet and general update, I entered the room with my dear friend – The Looming Fear of Incompetence (which from now on will be referred to as TLFoI). We – TLFoI and myself – had a pile of agendas, a PowerPoint presentation ready to go and a rather “no-nonsense”-looking Gantt chart for distribution. So being the professional that I am, I greeted the team members who had come from near and far and then proceeded to “hold court” explaining my unpredictable propensity to become motion sick on Sydney trains.

Yes, you did read the previous sentence correctly.

This monologue was sparked by two intersecting events; the presence of an enormously over-catered lunch (that of course I would not be partaking in – due to my waves of nausea) and a somewhat misplaced belief that I could shed TLFoI with some “down to earth” chat. However, it soon became apparent that motion sickness was not the great equaliser it promised to be. So with a carefully inserted segue, which I would rather forget, we transitioned to the meeting proper. It started well, I thanked the team members for attending, provided a brief overview of what we would talk about and reiterated some of the comments that had been shared through our email trails about the exciting opportunities that the project offered.

And enter…TLFoI!

What I should have done next was reach over to the laptop that sat about 30cm away from me, performed a decisive arrow-down and started the PowerPoint presentation. This I did not do, instead I disclosed to the group that I was “quite nervous about the meeting”. This statement, if not subjected to further conversation may have just evaporated quietly into the ether, however it did not have such a chance, as I then launched into musings about the fact that I was not usually nervous about such meetings and was quite confused about this and what it all meant. Yep, they got to share in my cognitive fusion as well!

Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my colleagues, one pointed out that my nervousness reflected the importance of the work we will be doing and another reassured me that I was “amongst friends”. In response I thought “thank you” and “fuck off LFoI!”

On reflection (the cringing sort that you can only do post the event on the train home), my disclosure could be construed as an attempt at setting up a sense of reciprocity with the group by revealing some of my personal self; my vulnerability, my nervousness. But as I fought back the waves of nausea from a second bout of motion sickness, further dissection led me to the realisation that this is a ruse that covers up an even more concerning subterfuge. This being that, by revealing a sense of nervousness, I may be forgiven indeed excused if the forthcoming discussions exposed me as less capable and competent than what others supposed me to be, or indeed what I supposed myself to be. I realise how manipulative this sounds, but I fear it is more manipulative to not write this out to completion.

So I arrived home after the meeting, which by the way was successful and very productive. As I changed into my more comfortable house uniform I thought to myself with a sense of contentment “that was a good day” and before I caught myself my next thought leapt into consciousness… “they’ve probably all got you pinned now as a high-achieving, type-A neurotic perfectionist”. It’s in these moments that you have to admit that you inhabit a battleground, where you struggle and engage in dirty skirmishes with the TLFoI and we will at times do things that may be better not done, in an attempt to placate the internal discomfort.


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