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  • Writer's pictureChristy Murdock

Whatever happened to competence?

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

You may have heard the old-fashioned phrase "Jack of all trades; master of none." It's meant to be a dig at people who don't specialize and who, instead, know a little about a lot. Personally, I love the idea of knowing lots of different things you might even say I've cultivated the habit myself.

While I have one skill that I've honed to a fairly high degree (content writing specifically for real estate and related industries) I have a lot of other skills that I have at least passing familiarity with. I'm a good cook, I can make an attractive flower arrangement, I can pack and unpack a house for a move in record time and with nary a chip on any of the dishes or tchotchkes.

I can put together furniture, and reupholster a dining room chair or ottoman. I can cut the grass (if I have to) and do most small home repair tasks around the house. I'm not afraid to go buy a car and haggle at the dealership. Give me a pattern and I can even sew a dress if it's not too complicated.

I don't feel the need to be an expert at any of these things, but I do consider myself competent. That's an old-timey, unglamorous, unsexy word for knowing how to do something more or less the right way with a minimum of fuss and bother. Competence is, in fact, the thing I value the most. I pride myself on my competence and get frustrated with myself when I find that I'm not competent in some areas. (My continuing inability to grow houseplants is a particular source of pain.)

I find more and more that people struggle with competence. Lots of people think that people are getting ruder or dumber and maybe that's true. But for me, it's the lack of competence that I find so upsetting.

When I call and talk to an employee, whether it's at a utility company or at a store, I no longer have the assurance that the information they're giving me is accurate. I have to double- and triple-check processes and procedures and am still likely to be told by a subsequent employee that the information I was given was incorrect.

I talk to friends and colleagues and everyone seems to be experiencing this. People don't do what they say they'll do or, if they do, there's almost inevitably a glitch. I just moved from Florida to Georgia (a long story that I will be covering in other posts) and it was a miserable experience, filled with incorrect information, blown schedules and massive displays of incompetence from real estate professionals, movers, utility companies and more.

There was one standout experience in the whole rigamarole. I hired a mover from TaskRabbit to come on the last day and help pack a few last items into a Uhaul truck so that we could "camp out" in our new house until our moving pods arrive with all of our furniture. The gentleman and his colleague were young, neatly dressed, soft-spoken, kind, gracious and, most of all, competent. They fit more into that truck and into our car than I would have ever thought possible.

They took the job and they took the time to do it right. It was such a breath of fresh air working with them and I wished with all of my heart that I had known about them from the start. I would have paid double to have them in charge of every step of the process.

It got me thinking about the difference working with them had made. What made them so supremely competent and so darn good at their job?

  1. They were engaged. Competent people are present in the moment, not distracted by what else is going on in their personal life, what's next on their agenda or what happened previously. The two movers I worked with on that last morning were right there with me and focused on the task at hand.

  2. They were invested. Competent people care about the task and about how it is performed. These men wanted my daughter and me to have an easy and successful move. They knew it was important for those last few items to get onto the truck and they were invested, in a way that felt very personal, in making sure that happened.

  3. They were interested. We had kept back some artwork that we wanted to transport personally and they asked questions about it. They were interested in what we were doing, our process, and where we were going. Their curiosity wasn't intrusive or intimidating. It was friendly and polite and helped us to feel like we were all on the same team.

If you ever feel like you are just going through the motions, your competence is probably taking a hit. You need to be tuned in, you need to care, in order to be competent.

Think about the things you are competent in. They're probably also the things you're interested in and the things you take some pride in. True competence comes from that emotional and mental engagement.

If you've been feeling checked out, get in touch with the things you used to love about your job. Yes, people are difficult. Yes, the market's been crazy. Yes, we've all been struggling emotionally and mentally the last couple of years. But in order to do great things, you can't be checked out. You have to actually care about what you're doing to experience exceptional outcomes and to provide them for your clients.

Maybe it's out of fashion, but let's bring back competence. Let's do the things we said we'd do. Let's respond to texts and emails and communicate, not because it's good business, but because we want to be of service. Let's care again and see what a difference it makes in the way we relate to clients and in the way we feel about ourselves and our businesses.


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