the usefulness of being incompetentBy
In most of the aspects of my life, I have become competent. Competent is an interesting word, from Latin, of course, as are most interesting words. Competere is the infinitive verb, meaning to compete, to vie, to be owed. No small coincidence that the word competition comes from competitio, a meeting of rivals. But enough etymology.
I look at competence as a internal competition, to always try to excel at something. The problem I have found is that good is the enemy of great. I don’t need to be great at things to enjoy them, but to settle for mediocre is not in my nature. I want to improve myself.
Add to that the Impostor Phenomenon (the idea that maybe you’re just lucky and you’re not all that) and you find a complex psychological stew between my ears. I am told on a regular basis that my business is a model for the industry, that we’ve achieved something amazing that no one else has done. etc. I am called out as a leader in the paddling community. It makes me uncomfortable, since I really don’t know if I am or not. It’s not false modesty; I have no frame of reference.
On the other hand is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In short, thinking you’re a genius when you’re really just a dolt. A few presidential candidates, anti-vaxxers, and talk show hosts come to mind. To quote Shakespeare,* “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Background laid out, I want to tell you about how much I sucked last week. A trip to the North House Folk School was in order. I needed to do something with my hands after a lot of brain work, and North House is the cure for that. Take a class there. Any class.
My choice was the Scandinavian Turn Shoe class taught by Jason from Laughing Crowe. He’s a gifted shoemaker and an excellent teacher. Even with his expert tutelage, nothing about this came easy to me. It was frustrating, it was aggravating, it was irritating. I sucked at this. I figured out why on the third day.
Metal behaves predictably for the most part. Heat up the steel to a certain temperature, hit it with the same force, and it will do the same thing most of the time. Same with wood (at least clear-grain wood), where it behaves mostly properly and predictably. With leather, it can vary in texture on the same hide; heck, in the same square foot of the hide. That’s because cattle are not consistently one thickness. Go figure, neither are we. If you don’t believe me, pinch the skin on the back of your hand, then on your shoulder. Big difference.
I was doing my best, but the truth is that I was incompetent. I was really and truly stymied by the changes in texture and techniques and the inability to really be precise with the leather.
And, it was the best class I have ever taken. I experienced a lot of joy once I got over myself and embraced incompetence. I got to feel like my students feel sometimes. When you are highly competent at something you forget that some people are just as incompetent at what you’re teaching as you are at something else.
Without comparing myself to Wolfgang in any way talent-wise, Mozart was a genius composer, but an atrocious teacher. He had a disdain for many of his students, criticizing them in private letters to his parents. He just could not see why they couldn’t hear what he hears in his head. I can’t imagine taking lessons from someone who just couldn’t see why this isn’t innate.
Maybe Mozart would have benefited from making a pair of shoes.
P.S. In the end, I have a wearable pair of shoes. They have flaws but they’re super comfortable and the flaws are only something I would notice. The next pair I make will be much better. And, I can make shoes, which is a pretty rare thing. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be shod. That black stuff on the bottom is barge cement mixed with dust from reground tires. Should be awesome.
*Full disclosure: I had to look up that quote. I am not a Shakespeare scholar.