47. The Contest for Competence (updated August 2013)

If some peo­ple don’t break the rules some­times, then a nor­mal soci­ety will cease to func­tion. Break­ing the wrong rules for the wrong rea­sons is like break­ing legs though. And if every­one breaks the rules, then a soci­ety will dis­in­te­grate. A para­dox? Yes. See how this cake is baked…

The vec­tor in play is the scarce resource of com­pe­tence. Most peo­ple doing most things are mar­gin­ally com­pe­tent at best, and this is in every area of human activ­ity, taken in its aggre­gate. Any given indi­vid­ual may be good at one thing – cook­ing, music, his job, what­ever – but the aggre­gate of peo­ple doing any of those activ­i­ties will be indif­fer­ently capa­ble. In fact, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber will be seri­ously inca­pable, and they may do dam­age out of pro­por­tion to their num­bers. There will be a small num­ber who are bril­liant at this par­tic­u­lar thing.

The scarcity of com­pe­tence holds true in even the best edu­cated soci­eties and pro­fes­sions. Med­ical doc­tors, for exam­ple, are very, very often down­right dan­ger­ous (e.g. Null et al 2003: “Death by Med­i­cine”). Doc­tors are not unique in this mat­ter. A ten year study across multi­na­tional com­pa­nies showed that only 10% of man­agers are effec­tive (Bruch and Ghoshal 2004). Appar­ently all the hoopla of “Human Resource” man­agers makes lit­tle net dif­fer­ence. We could eas­ily extend this cat­a­logue of net incom­pe­tence into every trade and pro­fes­sion. Over­all how­ever, the bal­ance is pre­sumed to be more neg­a­tive in those com­mu­ni­ties where edu­ca­tion is deval­ued and oppor­tu­nity is not equal.

Some com­pe­ten­cies are straight­for­ward to eval­u­ate. You can change a bicy­cle tyre or you can’t. Oth­ers have shift­ing cri­te­ria: for exam­ple, when can you be judged as “flu­ent” in a for­eign lan­guage? Yet other com­pe­ten­cies are loaded with value judge­ments: is this or that president/prime min­is­ter com­pe­tent or not? As the com­plex­i­ties of mod­ern soci­eties mul­ti­ply, these judge­ments become more dif­fi­cult.

Very often, as mem­bers of one cul­ture, soci­ety or nation we judge rival groups to be com­pe­tent or incom­pe­tent. This has major con­se­quences for deci­sion mak­ing in both busi­ness and gov­ern­ment. From these com­par­isons, we may wish to reform our own soci­ety, or that of oth­ers. Com­pe­tency at reform is amongst the most dif­fi­cult of all endeav­ors. If you want to change the world, then change what chil­dren wish for mea­sured against what chil­dren learn they can have.

By ten years of age I think that most chil­dren have at least a good work­ing model in their mind of how their par­ents con­strue the world, its val­ues and its oppor­tu­ni­ties. They might con­tinue to eval­u­ate that model, and not unusu­ally reject at least parts of it for a while. Some­times dra­matic life expe­ri­ence will turn those expec­ta­tions upside down (e.g. chil­dren in wars). How­ever we also know that cul­tures have extra­or­di­nary per­sis­tence, and are extremely dif­fi­cult to re-engi­neer. Inescapably, each child must learn to man­age change as part of grow­ing up. Often that is not easy. Some­times it is cat­a­strophic. Nature puts sex on top of the parental tem­plate, and fools chil­dren into think­ing it is the most impor­tant thing of all. Yet all the striv­ing for sex­ual con­quest and its sub­li­ma­tions is also shaped and dri­ven by the child’s acquired parental tem­plate of how the world works. Some parts of that tem­plate, like love and nur­ture, are found every­where, though twisted in many ways. Many other things are mag­ni­fied by this cul­ture or that. The acquis­i­tive obses­sion is one, nar­cis­sism another. Through­out the whole growth process are oppor­tu­ni­ties for suc­cess and fail­ure, acquired skills for com­pe­tence or a resigned con­vic­tion of being no good at this or that.

Much of the evil in the world comes from attempts to con­ceal or com­pen­sate for incom­pe­tence and fail­ure. The man­ner of han­dling fail­ure is one of those keys to the heart where learn­ing begins before 10 years of age. If we could only learn to value doing what­ever we do as well as we can, then much that is ugly would van­ish. Can we learn as chil­dren to respect those who do a good job above those who have a big house and three cars in the dri­ve­way? Can we wish not to despise the own­ers of big houses, but to admire the skill of the car­pen­ters who made them?

These dilem­mas over how to find and focus our small reserves of com­pe­tence are as old as the human cav­al­cade. Only the avail­able tools have changed. The con­test between soci­eties and groups, ancient or mod­ern, is not about ‘cap­i­tal­ism’ and ‘com­mu­nism’, or all the other ‘~isms’ . It is about the strug­gle to cap­ture the scarce car­ri­ers of com­pe­tence. They may be bought by cash or pres­tige. They may be kid­napped by civil pow­ers or by orga­nized crime. They may be lured into a closed sys­tem such as both clas­si­cal and mod­ern Chi­nese offi­cial­dom (i.e. as man­darins, in that case by exam­i­na­tions), and there­after kept in a cage to ser­vice some elite. There are a myr­iad of other traps and lures to have the com­pe­tent do what oth­ers lack the where­withal to man­age.

The utopian ideal of a “best soci­ety”, the kind fan­ta­sized in reli­gions, ide­olo­gies and polit­i­cal elec­tion speeches, might be one where there is a free mar­ket to trade com­pe­tence, a mar­ket con­strained only by restric­tions on intent to harm oth­ers, and leav­ened by val­ues of trust, good­will and gen­eros­ity. It would be a mar­ket where every per­son was at lib­erty to max­imise their own com­pe­tence, and where their abil­i­ties attracted real respect, not sim­ply accord­ing to their wealth or power.

We know of course that ‘best soci­eties’ do not exist, even as we strive for them. In the mean­time, and here’s the rub, we have to deal with soci­eties where the intent to harm oth­ers, phys­i­cally or psy­cho­log­i­cally, is not only per­mit­ted but man­dated in many forms. We have do deal with, and in, soci­eties where con­for­mity is imposed and pro­pa­gan­dized for the pur­pose of keep­ing in power indi­vid­u­als and groups whose main nour­ish­ment is an addic­tion to the nar­cotic of power, how­ever ruth­lessly obtained and exer­cised. We have to deal with the world as we find it.

In deal­ing with the daily world, yet remain­ing true to our objec­tive of valu­ing com­pe­tence, it may well hap­pen that we have to break this ‘rule’ or that. A strict adher­ence to pre­scribed meth­ods may lead to incom­pe­tent out­comes. The judge­ment is not an easy one, and never has been. As the old say­ing has it, ‘laws are for the obe­di­ence of fools and the guid­ance of wise men’. Rules though are human cre­ations, somebody’s tool for enforc­ing their idea of a desir­able real­ity. In 1987 I had just arrived as a new uni­ver­sity lec­turer in the small island state of Fiji when the mil­i­tary leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, walked into par­lia­ment and announced the end of democ­racy. “Accept the new real­ity”, he advised, “go home”. Well, not so quickly mis­ter. There are times when we have to make our real­i­ties, or try to, and break some rules if nec­es­sary, even at risk. Rabuka him­self had done just that.

Often it is not the cod­i­fied laws, or the dic­tats of coup lead­ers, that are most dif­fi­cult to accept or reject sen­si­bly. More often we are entan­gled by those invis­i­ble bands of steel, the unspo­ken rules of behav­iour that define ideas about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in every cul­ture, or what works and what doesn’t. It is our unex­am­ined assump­tions about accepted wis­dom which bind us. Indeed, life is even harder than that. Above all, none of us now lives in a sin­gle cul­ture. We switch roles. We are work­ers and investors, tourists and hosts, dri­vers, cus­tomers, vot­ers, par­ents and stu­dents, who knows what else … all at once. In some roles we feel per­son­ally com­pe­tent and in some we do not. We travel in con­cen­tric as well as inter­sect­ing bands of cul­tures where black and white shift with the speed of a mov­ing spot­light.

There may be times when the whole show falls apart. We get it wrong. Maybe an entire soci­ety gets it wrong. Spin fails. Con­fi­dence is lost, and we can’t buy it back with a fist full of dol­lars. The chasm beck­ons. Then what? Our ances­tors have been here before. Fight­ing paral­y­sis and fear, instinc­tively we look around for the mas­ter of a weapon in which we can trust, a light sword of the imag­i­na­tion. Char­la­tans may step forth, magi­cians, ped­dlers of faith and holy bones, pop­ulists and wannabe dic­ta­tors. In the end, if our instincts serve us right, we will look for guid­ance to the teacher who offers com­pe­tence and good­will, for these are the skills and qual­i­ties we need so des­per­ately to rebuild again in our own minds.



Bruch, Heike & Sumantra Goshal (2004) A Bias for Action. Har­vard Busi­ness Press. Sum­ma­rized online by Cyril Pereira in the Asia Sen­tinel, 21 Feb­ru­ary 2012 : “Only 10% of man­agers effec­tive? What a shock!” at http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4255&Itemid=629

Gary Null PhD, Car­olyn Dean MD ND, Mar­tin Feld­man MD, Deb­ora Rasio MD, Dorothy Smith PhD (2003) Death by Med­i­cine. A three part report online at http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2003/11/26/death-by-medicine-part-one.aspx . Based on Kohn L, ed, Cor­ri­gan J, ed, Don­ald­son M, ed. (1999) To Err Is Human: Build­ing a Safer Health Sys­tem. Wash­ing­ton, DC: National Acad­emy Press; 1999



Bio: Thorold (Thor) May has taught Eng­lish lan­guage and Lin­guis­tics in Aus­tralia, Ocea­nia and East Asia for thirty-five years. His inter­ests extend well beyond aca­d­e­mic lin­guis­tics and teach­ing how­ever. He has a spe­cial fas­ci­na­tion with the dynam­ics of social change. His doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Many of its con­clu­sions were exten­si­ble to knowl­edge worker pro­duc­tiv­ity in gen­eral.

Con­tact: thormay@yahoo.com (pub­lic e-mail and spam trap)

Web­site:  The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic http://thormay.net

Research Papers:

1. Mendeley.com –  http://www.mendeley.com/profiles/thorold-may/

2. Academia.edu – http://independent.academia.edu/thormay


Thor’s lan­guage teach­ing notes  http://thorslanguageandteachingnotes.byeways.net/
Thor’s new China diary http://thormay.net/ChinaDiary2/
Thor’s unwise ideas http://thorsunwiseideas.byeways.net/
Thor’s videos & record­ings http://thorsvideo.byeways.net/
Thor’s Aus­tralian spaces http://thorsaustralianspaces.byeways.net/
Thor’s short cuts http://thorshortcuts.byeways.net/


All opin­ions expressed in Thor’s Unwise Ideas and The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

“The Con­test for Com­pe­tence ” © copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2012


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