Embrace Your So-Called “Incompetence”

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and  determination are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

So why am I worried?

Because four months have passed since Gini’s “sabbatical” began and she’s already half given up. How do I know that? Because she’s back looking for 9-to-5 jobs.

I talked to her boyfriend about it. He says she is uncomfortable with learning the computer skills associated with becoming a graphic artist and doubts she will “get it.”

But when I figure that because she was preoccupied with redecorating their new home for several months, she can’t possible have been able to devote more than 100 hours to the AWAI Graphic Design course so far. How can she expect to have “gotten it” yet?

A hundred hours isn’t enough time to learn a complicated skill. Not even close. If you take on the task of developing a new skill, you can be pretty sure of one thing — during the first several hundred hours of learning, the main feeling you will have is one of incompetence.

Incompetent. That’s how you’ll feel. Stupid . . . and clumsy . . . and talentless . . . and hopeless. And guess what? That’s exactly as it should be.

You start in ignorance. Then you move into incompetence. And you stay incompetent for hundreds and hundreds of hours. Until you’ve finally put in the 600 to 1,000 hours it takes to become competent. Ignorance is not painful. Incompetence is. When you are ignorant, you don’t know how foolish and frustrating and futile incompetence feels. When you begin to feel the pain of incompetence, you want to quit. And most people, most of the time, do quit.

It’s true of all such endeavors: learning a foreign language, learning to dance, learning to play a musical instrument, and learning about art or wine or architecture or history.

You begin with the excitement of imagining how good it will be when you achieve competence. That motivates you to start. About 90 minutes after you begin, you have your first second thoughts. “Gee, this isn’t going to be as fun and easy as I imagined,” you say to yourself.

And after that, it gets worse.

Most important endeavors begin in ignorance and succeed through pain. If you don’t have the persistence to endure the pain, you won’t get to enjoy the success.

Gini is not the only person to struggle with the Graphic Design program. My high-school buddy TG had trouble with it too. That tells me the course itself needs some reworking. We have to find a way to make it feel easier — the way the copywriting course feels easy — so our students won’t so quickly feel frustrated with it.

I’m going to ask the people at AWAI to review the program and make some improvements. And I’m going to make sure Gini gets the added help she needs. But however much we refine the program, we will not be able to eliminate the feeling of incompetence that every student experiences.

At some point along the way — and if it’s not after 90 minutes, it will be, if not sooner, after 90 hours — the fledgling graphic artist will catch a glimpse of the horizon before him and recognize how little he actually knows and how much he has still to learn.

That is the feeling of incompetence. And that is the moment when he will have to make a choice: Move forward or retreat.

Learning a new skill . . . accomplishing a new goal . . . doing anything important in life requires more than a positive mindset, more than an imagined dream, more than a detailed roadmap of objectives and deadlines, and more than luck and courage and intelligence. Success requires time, time requires tenacity, and tenacity requires persistence.

I want Gini to succeed. But I can’t do the work for her. All I can do is find some way to convince her that if she persists in her studies . . . if she continues to push through the awkwardness of ignorance and continues to plug away at the lessons . . . if she persists in putting in one hour after another, one day after the last, one week and then one month and then finally one year . . . if she can just do those things, she will succeed.

That’s my job now . . . to figure out how I can prove that to her. I’m 100% sure of it in my own heart. But that’s because I’ve had the good fortune of being so damn incompetent so many times in my life.