In Defense of Competence

While we’re often urged by wise people to strive for more than mere competence, it’s important to understand the important role that competence plays in learning, growing, and achieving great things – and to value it quite a bit more.

“The feeling of competence results” writes psychologist Edward Deci in Why We Do What We Do, “when a person takes on and, in his or her own view, meets optimal challenges.” This feeling leads to a sense of satisfaction and fuels our intrinsic motivation – the type of motivation that comes from within.  As Deci explains it,

The “rewards” linked to intrinsic motivation are the feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment that accrue spontaneously as a person engages freely in the target activities. Thus, feeling competent at the task is an important aspect of one’s intrinsic satisfaction. The feeling of being effective is satisfying in its own right, and can even represent the primary draw for a lifelong career. People realize that the more they invest in a job, the better they will get at it, and thus the more intrinsic satisfaction they will experience.

In our faster, farther, better culture the small steps that contribute to competence are, in fact, the building blocks of greatness. It is, in the right circumstances, admirable to be “passionate, obsessed, provocative, impatient, hungry” and “driven,” but we need to get there honestly. Looking around these days, I can’t help but feel that a bit more focus on competence could be a good thing.


2 thoughts on “In Defense of Competence”

  1. David – Thanks. I *think* I probably came across Deci when reading Pink + decided to go looking into sources. I highly recommend Deci’s Why We Do What We Do. In it he references Robert Wright’s Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence – the foundation of a lot of thinking on competence. Good article worth tracking down. – Jeff

  2. Competence is a pre-requisitie for a great many things – having a job among them!

    I am reminded of Daniel Pink’s book about what motivates people – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose – we can’t master anything if we are not competent.

    “We need to get there honestly” – that is a great phrase. Thanks!

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