Balancing act: What's wrong with quiet competence?

Published: Tuesday, April 16 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

A competent person is someone who is qualified, capable and able to handle a particular task. These are all positive qualities that people should be happy to have, and yet the word "competent" is too often seen as an insult.

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As a writer, I understand the power of words.

When used carefully and purposefully, they convey powerful meaning and inspire people to improve themselves and the world around them. When used incorrectly and hastily, they can cause those who hear or read them to feel confusion, sadness or pain.

Sometimes, however, I feel that a particular word is denigrated and avoided when it should be appreciated and utilized more often.

I've been thinking of one such word during the last few days: competent.

According to several online dictionaries, a competent person is someone who is qualified or capable. He or she has the skills or knowledge necessary to handle a particular task.

These are all positive qualities that people should be happy to have. I've been fortunate to work with many competent people over the years.

This occurred to me last week as I attended a brunch with several dozen former colleagues from my time as a reporter and editor at the Deseret News.

As I spoke with these good people, I was struck by their collective competence, back when we were all in the newsroom trenches together.

Reporters, editors, columnists, page designers, artists and photographers were represented, and I depended on all of them for help and expertise at one time or another during my years at the News. They never failed me.

At one point, I turned to my wife — a fellow News alumnus — and commented, "You could put out a darn good newspaper with these people!" She responded that, yes, it was a very competent group.

Competent, I thought. Yes, that was a good adjective to describe us. But then I wondered about that word choice.

Too often, I think, we feel that being described as competent is somehow an insult — that it means the same thing as "average," which it does not. If we're not told that we're outstanding, amazing, superior or excellent, we believe we must be failing.

And that, I fear, could have negative consequences. Instead of being secure in the knowledge that they are doing well, and maybe inspired to try to do a bit better, people may decide that it's their lot in life to be "just competent" and wallow in a sense of defeat.

While we should strive for excellence in all we do, the fact is, we can't possibly be superior in every aspect of our lives. We are blessed with different skills and talents. We may work as hard as we can in some areas and still hope to achieve no more than competence.

But that is not a bad thing, in my estimation.

For example, I don't have to be "Father of the Year" in order to raise healthy, happy children, and I don't have to be the perfect husband to be a good mate to my wife. (That's a relief, because I definitely fall short in both areas.)

If, when they're older and raising their own families, my children say that I set a good example and helped them be good people and better parents, I'll feel that I was a competent and successful father. And if I strive to do my share of the parenting and household chores while also making sure my wife knows how much I value and love her, I'll feel that I have been a competent husband.

I'll always try to improve, to do better and to do more, but I'll also remember that there's nothing wrong with competence. After all, if I'm exhibiting the skills, knowledge and capabilities to complete the tasks set before me, I must be doing something right.

What do you think? Is competence an undervalued characteristic at work and at home these days? Is it OK to be satisfied with competent performance of a task? How do you react when someone describes you as competent?

Send me your ideas, and I'll share some of them in a future column.

Until then, I'll keep trying to be an excellent columnist. But if I'm at least competent, I'll be happy with that, too.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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