On Feeling Competent


On Feeling Competent

Ozy Brennan recently published a post an overview of The Thirty Facets of the Big Five Personality. I wanted to focus on one facet in particular:

Competence. People who are high in Competence feel like they’re basically capable of handling the tasks and situations they encounter. They are rarely caught flat-footed, and they usually make decisions that will cause them to get things they want and not things they don’t. If the concept of “imposter syndrome” doesn’t make any sense to you, you’re high in Competence.

After reading this post of Ozy's, I came to the conclusion that my avoidance of problems can be summed up as Feeling Low Competency. It is as simple as: whenever I identify as being less competent, I avoid the related task for as long as I can.

This post is my attempt to summarise on what helps with feeling more competent. I am focussing on "competency" as emotional management in this post and not actually as a set of skills that you gain that result in better decisions.

Having Tricks

I have been recently pairing with colleagues who are faster debuggers than I am, and I noticed that they actually did not know more about the subject area than I did. A lot of their speed came down to a handful of tricks that they would try. It was almost like going through a checklist. Things like:

Since they always had an approach into the problem, they did not feel incompetent. Or, at least, they did not have enough empty dawdling time to feel incompetent in.

Feeling Good About your Models

It is true that the more time you spend in a field, the more complexities become known to you, but also the more confident you become of the models you are building. If you have internationally travelled before, and things had gone wrong, you have a better model of what actions you can take when those things go wrong and what international travel is like.

Your model might be incomplete. What is important in the emotional landscape of competency is not necessarily having an accurate model, but feeling good about the model you have. You might genuinely feel good because of your model's growing accuracy, but you might also feel good because there are blind spots you have not been made aware of. But even with knowing that the blind spots probably exist, people who feel competent feel like they will still be able to figure something out.

Competency that stems from better subject area expertise comes with time, experience, and dedicated focused learning. This really emphasises to me the downside of people in tech frequently changing companies.

It took me about 3-4 years until I felt competent developing on VisiData. And it is not that big of a project. If my average professional tenancy at a company continues to be 2 years, I am not going to getting to that point with my day job.

Not Being Attached to Outcomes (Lower Stakes)

Some tension that comes with people feeling incompetent stems from the stakes of Bad Things Happening feeling really high. This is a big part of why learning through play and "practice" feels lighter than learning on the job.

When the stakes feel high, feeling incompetent can have much more tension. On top of feeling like you are not able to make good decisions, the outcomes of those decisions really matter to you. It is not that high stakes result in feeling incompetent, but that they heighten those feelings to the point of paralysis.

All 3 of these are related. The more experience you get, the better and more finetuned your tricks are. When you have tricks up your sleeve, the stakes feel lower. When the stakes feel lower, you feel emotionally safer to go through the (sometimes frustrating) learning process to gain experience.

I am hoping that this breakdown helps. It really sucks how much feeling incompetent can become a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in slowing down the rate of growth.

Believing you are qualified to reason about your life is an incredibly important virtue. We do not start off being good at making decisions, and if we feel like we will never be qualified, then even if we do grow it becomes an awful period of suffering and/or fear.

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