Competency vs. Mastery

I think a lot of people look at artisans who are true masters of their craft and immediately think: "Oh no, not me, I'll never be that good." Well, that may or may not be true depending on your attitude, but the good news don't have to.

The masters of their craft have spent well over 10,000 hours practicing, inventing, improvising, and failing. Lots of failing. They are the rock stars because they've put in the requisite amount of time to become really, really good at what they do. You are not them.

Luckily, you don't have to be them in order to make cool stuff and have fun. Nothing kills a passion quicker than comparing oneself to to some unattainable ideal. Remember, we're in this for fun, right? So, maybe you should be thinking about what effort is required in order to generate joy while you make stuff instead of lamenting about your paltry skills as compared to the awesome, Suzy Rockstar.

So, what does it take to have fun while you make stuff? Well, personally, I think it's all fun. I even like the beginning fumbling about bits where you can't tell a knit stitch from a cantaloupe and it seems you never will. I realize though, that all people are not as weird as me. So, for the rest of you, my answer would be: competency. See, I know how to do a lot of stuff because I'm curious and I don't mind failing. Have I attained mastery in all these pursuits? Not even close. Heck, in most of my hobbies, I'm not even working toward it! All I want out of most things that I try is to attain a level of competency. I'll save mastery for my true passions. Competency serves me just fine for most things I enjoy doing.

The great thing, maybe the greatest thing, about competency is that it just doesn't take that long to get there. I knitted for one Winter and now I'm a competent knitter. I've played bass for a couple years and I'm a competent bass player. I can talk about a wide variety of subjects because I'm willing to work through the dip of ignorance, where the going is a little tough, and emerge on the side of competency. You can do it too. The main thing, I think, is to stay out of the trap of comparison. It doesn't matter how great other people are. You are you and you are in charge of your own experience, so make it a good one. Sure, you can look up to these people. After all, they're great, right? Just don't kick yourself while you are admiring them. Keeps you from having fun, dontcha know.


  1. Bravo! I think that we approached more things accepting that we may be mediocre at it instead of fearing we may never masters, it would allow us to have fun with the process. I've found when I approach a new skill or task that way, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how quickly I become proficient at it.
    Great post!

  2. One of the things I always loved about learning new dances is being able to enjoy being a newbie. So what if I suck, as long as I'm trying, having fun, and not hurting anyone?

  3. Yes, yes, bloody yes. I love the saying that the journey is the destination.

  4. Good advice. My main difficulty is working through those beginning fumbling about bits where it seems like everything I do sucks. Comparing yourself to an expert at that stage is going to suck out your enthusiasm really quickly.

    Have you got any advice for those of us who haven't mastered the art of enjoying bumbling around cluelessly when learning new skills? If I could improve my outlook to be more like your own I'd probably get a lot more done!

  5. Matt - Laugh. That's the best thing to do. I was in a crochet class the other night and a one point I was just not doing very well. I started to get hot about it and then I remembered that it's pretty funny for a 6'2", tattooed dude to get mad at some yarn. Made myself laugh. Things got better.

  6. This is awesome advice, Paul. And it can be extended out even further than just developing interests and skills--I think job seekers need to remember this advice.

    I got a 10 year job not because I was an expert in what I do (Costume Design), but ironically because I was not!! I was a costume generalist, "competent" in a number of different things but not so specialized in anything that I couldn't "do it all".

    With the job market being the way it is, and employees having to step up and execute a wider variety of tasks they didn't have to before, perhaps seeking competency in things (instead of beating one's self up for lack of mastery) is a good idea. Even employERS are feeling the pinch as they try to do more with less.

    If folks could let themselves off the hook, perhaps things would "flow" a bit easier, and we'd all improve our lot simply by letting ourselves be okay. The hardest part of the pursuit of happiness is knowing when you've caught up with it. : )

  7. Relished - Thanks for that. Good points about being a generalist. Hadn't thought of the job market angle, but it fits right in.

  8. boy, thats the hard part though, isnt it?
    Ive quit so many things over the years after comparing myself to people who were really good at something, and getting bummed out.
    But theyre the ones who inspired you to try it in the first place!
    Check out my blog, after fourty years, Ive finally started making bread that ill put up against anyones!
    John Kaay

  9. Thanks, Paul. I'll give it a go next time I start to get frustrated =)

  10. John - That is some fine looking bread, my friend.

    Matt - Let me know how it goes.

  11. Thanks for a thought provoking essay! It is very easy to fall into the comparison trap. If I stop to think about why I create, I can usually escape it.