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Posted on: Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by Rajiv Popat

Facing And Embracing Your Incompetence.

I'm incompetent. On days I feel like a absolute looser who is unable to focus and get anything done. On other days when I am productive, I see others around me being incompetent and I get urges to tell them to snap out of it and get them to get some real work done.

In my entire life span, I can count the consistently productive people I've worked with using fingers on my one hand. And just to be absolutely clear, I'm not one of them. Oh and when I'm not productive, I've got thousands of excuses about why I'm unable to give my best.


The other day I downloaded a version of ionic and out of the box and it wouldn't compile a hello world project I stubbed out using it's own CLI. I felt angry at the incompetence of developers who were building the ionic framework and had the audacity to throw a crappy build out there under the name of iterative development!

Then I went looking for some help and someone had already whined about it on the ionic git repository, where someone else had given them an ugly patch to unblock them. So I applied the same ugly patch myself and life moved on.

On a different day, I was trying to get .NET core 2 application migrated to .NET Core 3 and it was just annoying. Were the developers at Microsoft incompetent? Or was I just having a bad day? Or, was I incompetent for not going through all the breaking changes between two version and writing planned code rather than doing reactive development every time something broke? I told myself I was just having a bad day and pushed on applying one fix after another and migrating the code over to the newer version of the framework. This was defect driven development but I got a lot done. Maybe I was incompetent but I was productive.

Then, the other day, I got on an elevator, and pressed the button to go to the sixth floor, the elevator literally bounced around a bit, then went to basement at full speed, then shot up at full speed all the way to fifth floor instead of sixth, came to a screeching halt, opened it's door and stopped. All of us in there were shit scared and spell bound.

Then the maintenance guy shows up and tells us he had no idea what just happened but 'guarantees' it wouldn't happen again. My nerd brain is screaming to tell him that he cannot theoretically give us that guarantee till he knows exactly what happened. But as per him, 'for now' everything 'seems' fine and we could go ahead and use the elevator again. I took the stair case instead.

Like it or not, we live in a world where everything is broken. I don't know how we got there. Maybe it was materialism or maybe it was just our desire to move fast or be agile, or maybe it was just our animal instinct to win races, but we're here. And like it or not everything is either broken or will break down soon. The only question is how badly will it break down and how soon?

This also means that as much as you want your work to be reliable it is just as reliable as the underlying frameworks you use, and most frameworks you use are going to be broken at some level. Add to that, our inherent incompetence, our laziness, all the distractions, the work culture most of us are working in, the interactions you're having at work, the number of meetings we're expected to attend  and the amount of grunt work that we're expected to do. On any given day if you can get anything done, you should give yourself a pat on your back.

We live in a world where incompetence is the norm. Everyone around you is incompetent. You are incompetent and so am I. And there are only two ways to deal with this incompetence:

Embrace Incompetence and Design for Resilience.

Start your day with realizing the potential of incompetence you have and set smaller goals and turning productivity into a game. If you have a todo list that expects you to do more than 2 hours of real work on any given day you are just going to be disappointed end up feeling like a piece of crap.

Know that you are incompetent, the frameworks you work with are unreliable, your work culture is broken and above all the folks you work with are going to struggle with these exact set of issues of incompetence as you are struggling with and they too will have mood swings and productivity cycles like you and you have to deal with all of that; not to mention your phone buzzing and email streams to distract you. So just aim to get less done without feeling guilty about it. You'll be happier.

If you want any mental sanity in today's world have really low expectations about your own productivity and productivity of folks around you.

Then when you get 3 hours of work done in a day you feel good about it rather than feeling like crap. And then when your dopamine circuits kick in, instead of being being constantly depressed about being non productive you can be happy and slowly push the two hour check list to a higher hour count because you are now gaining self confidence and control.

Put simply, design your life around unreliable things and build resilience into your work routines, the quality of work you do and even your social interactions. Life today is literally a game of inches and instead of hoping to walk a focused yard, it all boils down to your ability to grab and collect those little wins and inching forward. Embrace incompetence and grab whatever tiny inches of productivity you can grab out of your own life.

Draw Incompetence Boundaries

An elevator bouncing and going to the basement when you press 6 on the dials is acceptable. The same elevator crashing and killing people isn't. They told me that the elevator has a safety mechanism in place and it could dance around all it wanted but the likelihood of us dying in an elevator crash are very low:

The only known occurrence of an elevator car free falling due to a snapped cable (barring fire or structural collapse), was in 1945. A B25 Bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, severing the cables of two elevators. The elevator car on the 75th floor had a woman on it, but she survived due to the 1000 feet of coiled cable of fallen cable below, which lessened the impact.

The elevator manufacturers have clearly drawn a line on what's acceptable level of incompetence.

My general rule is, incompetence is fine as long as it's not costing someone their life, a physical injury, mental trauma or their hard earned money. That's where my boundaries are at. Anytime there is even a remote chance that any of these are violated, I have to shake my incompetence off, get some serious work done and take extra measures to try my level best to ensure that this doesn't happen. Absolutely, no excuses allowed. Fortunately most of us work on CRUD apps where the bugs we introduce are such that we can just go "Oops! Sorry!" - fix them and move on.

Also, It's good to have boundaries around just how much incompetence you will  tolerate from yourself. For me those boundaries are pretty relaxed but every once in a while I'll snap and will send a virtual check of hundreds of dollars to my mom stating that if I don't complete this task by a specific time and send her proof of it's completion she is free to encash the check and just take the money. She is not supposed to give me a chance to produce any excuses or explanations. Do you know how many time's she has had to encash the check because of me not fishing the task on time? Zero.

Suddenly, I've taken my incompetence which was causing me some minor annoyance and turned it into incompetence that's going to cost me enough money to make me uneasy. Lo and behold, things get done. Not in months or weeks, but in days and sometimes hours.

The other important thing to realize is that the only incompetence you can address or fix is your own. Trying to fix anyone else's incompetence is a recipe for becoming an as$hole. Every loud obnoxious jerk at your workplace believes that his or her coworkers are incompetent and he / she is just trying to help them get rid of their incompetence when in reality he / she is just being an as$hole.

The other day I was watching a video about a mass murderer who was being put on the electric chair but it was taking some time. This dude got so annoyed at the incompetence of his executor that he yelled something to the effect, that his executor was incredibly incompetent and in that much time he himself would have killed half the city! Once you start looking at incompetence of anyone other than yourself and start acting on your urges to 'fix them' you have taken your first step towards being a prick because now you're seeing someone as a lesser person.

Long story short incompetence is all around us and we live in a world where there are very few people or things that work consistently. You can either bitch about it and use it as an excuse to get nothing done, brood over it and be an arrogant pompous prick who thinks every else is incompetent; or embrace this incompetence and ship anyways. I don't know about you, but I prefer the later.