Modern humans have many skills. We can read, write, and do arithmetic. We can cook, shop and use the internet. We can play sports, musical instruments, and video games. And we keep learning new skills most of our lives.
The greater our skill, the more competent we feel. And we are learning more skills today than ever. Yet there’s reason to believe that on average we are feeling less and less competent all the time.
We’ll consider why this is happening and what, if anything, we can do about it. But first, let’s see why it matters.
Deep inside us is a desire to be the best in the tribe at something that matters to the tribe. We want to be the go-to person for some skill or service the community values.
This desire is not about having higher status than others (that’s a different issue). It’s about having our own special way to contribute to the community. If others rely on us for our skills as much as we rely on them for their skills, we feel we belong.
This desire for unique competence drives us to develop diverse skills. If the older brother is already valued as the smart child, the younger brother might work to become the funny child. The high school student who lacks talent for playing football might work hard to become the best beat-boxer, artist, dancer, mathematician, chess player, expert on comic books, song lyric memorizer, or drug dealer in the school.
A drive for unique competence is good for individuals in the tribe. It also helps the tribe as a whole. A tribe with diverse talents extracts resources from the environment more effectively than a tribe whose members compete with each other to master a narrower range of skills.
According to Self-Determination Theory, competence (along with autonomy and relatedness) is one of the three fundamental human psychological needs.1
In the good old days this was our straightforward strategy for feeling competent:
Straightforward Competence Strategy: Find a valuable skill no one else is specializing in, and practice it until you are the go-to provider of that skill in your tribe.
If you grew up in a medieval village or a paleolithic tribe, you could take up a craft like baking, blacksmithing, spear making, or root gathering, and, after a while, you would overhear people say things like: “If you want good steel, go see John.” It doesn’t really matter who you are, if you’re human, overhearing something like that will be music to your ears.
Unfortunately, our straightforward strategy for feeling competent isn’t working as well as it used to, and it’s partly because:
Consumers no longer need to get all their needs met by local providers. Instead they are free to seek the best deal they can find from any provider in the world.
This is good news for consumers, and bad news for providers.
A person who sets out to be a good copywriter (for example) might become the best copywriter in her neighborhood within a reasonable amount of time, and with a reasonable degree of attention to the craft. Unfortunately (for our copywriter) local copywriters have little edge over distant copywriters. In order for a copywriter to get her neighbor’s business, she must compete not only with all the other copywriters in her neighborhood, but also with all the other copywriters in the world.
Being an average provider in a global niche is not necessarily an economic death sentence. In fields like copywriting that require one-on-one fulfillment, the market has a way of allowing less talented providers to compete side by side with more talented providers. Copywriters often take a week or more per project, and there’s more demand for copywriting than the best copywriters in the world can satisfy. That allows the best copywriters to set higher prices and still stay busy, while less skillful copywriters can serve clients who don’t want to wait, or don’t want to pay the higher fees. As a copywriter gets better and better, she can charge higher and higher prices as well.
But our concern here is not with economic viability. Our concern is with happiness. And our mediocre copywriter might not fare well on that count.
When we compete with the best in the world, it takes a long time to become one of the best. Some suggest it takes roughly 10,000 hours these days to achieve mastery in a widely-practiced field. That number might be high or low depending the person and the skill in question, but the fact remains: in a tribe of 7 billion people we must focus on our craft for a very long time before we feel truly good about our skills, and for others to recommend us as a go-to resource on the basis of merit alone.
People now spend years of their lives practicing skills and offering services, knowing the whole time they are not the best option their clients or employers could find. And that’s tough on members of our species. Our minds evolved to crave competence at a time when it might have taken 500 hours of focused skill development to become a go-to resource for the tribe. Today it takes 10,000 hours to get the same hit.
And today’s 10,000 hours might turn into tomorrow’s 20,000 hours.
But that’s not all. We also suffer because:
In some niches the best providers can deliver value to more people simultaneously than they ever could before.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t have to meet one-on-one with clients and spend a week with each one to deliver his service. Once he finishes a movie, it can be distributed to everyone in the world with very little extra effort on his part. And the final cost of his services to the end consumer is so low relative to the value provided there’s no room to compete on price.
That means, if you want to be the go-to provider of your neighbor’s storytelling needs, you are in competition with Christopher Nolan, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and all the very best storytellers in the world.
When clients can choose from a global talent pool, and excellent providers can serve millions of people simultaneously at a low price, the mediocre provider often finds himself squeezed out completely.
These two factors lead to:
The story telling niche has made two transitions: from local shopping to global shopping and from relatively unleveraged fulfillment to highly leveraged fulfillment.
Many niches have made both transitions. Some have made one but not the other. And some niches still require local, one-on-one fulfillment.
Plumbers, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and most service workers are in a local and unleveraged conditions. In other words, they must provide their services one-on-one and compete mostly with local talent.
Shopkeepers, local workshop providers, and local musicians are in a local and leveraged niche. They still compete mostly with local talent, but they can serve more people at one time than a plumber can.
Copywriters, consultants, and salaried corporate workers are in a global and unleveraged niche. They provide their services to one client or employer at a time. But they must compete in a global labor market.
Writers who write for mass consumption, developers who develop software for mass consumption, professional athletes, and academic researchers are in a global and leveraged niche.
Not every niche fits neatly into just one of the four categories. Small firm doctors and lawyers, for instance, are often in a global marketplace when looking for their first job. But, once established in a town, their sense of competence depends mostly on the local competition.
And some jobs will have multiple aspects with some aspects fitting into one category and other aspects fitting into another. University professors, for instance, compete locally for teaching competence, and globally for researching competence.
To appreciate more fully where we stand let’s take . . .
Here’s where things get interesting. Most of the new value in the world is being created in the global-leveraged category. And that seems to mean that more of us will have to compete head on with millions of others to be the best in the world at something, with most of us failing completely, and a few lucky winners enjoying the majority of the pie.
But (fortunately) competing head on is not our only option.
An alternative is that we can create new sub-niches for ourselves. Academic researchers have long competed in a global marketplace of ideas. But researchers have a knack for finding new areas of study to call their own. Once they find their specialty, it’s relatively easy to become the worldwide expert in that area – at least for a while.
Today there are biochemists who specialize in the effects of a specific gene on a specific organ. Because niches can branch and branch and branch, the number of niches can grow as fast as the number of people seeking niches. And, like the best beatboxer in the high school, we are naturals at finding our own niches.
Writers can do something similar. Stephen King doesn’t compete head on with John Grisham. One writes horror stories, and the other writes lawyer/detective novels.
An aspiring author with a background in Renaissance History might carve off a new niche by writing lawyer/detective novels in a Renaissance setting. Even if our new writer is only above average as a writer, she might find a small following among Renaissance Era enthusiasts who also like lawyer/detective novels, (in part because her stories are good enough, and in part because she’s the only one scratching that particular itch).
Another alternative for someone in a global leveraged niche is to stop flying solo and join a company. The company will compete in the global leveraged niche, and the employee will offer services to the company in a global, unleveraged manner.
Nichifying and affiliating can help us cope. But they won’t return us to paradise.
The tighter we nichify, the harder it is to find those who value our services. And the tighter we nichify the more difficult it can be to explain to our friends and family in the “real world” what exactly it is we do. That means most of us might never taste the sweet feelings of pride, mutual admiration, mutual respect, and belonging felt by tribal spear makers and village blacksmiths once upon a time.
Likewise, affiliating with a corporation can help us survive. But our skills will still be measured against a global talent pool, and we must sacrifice autonomy (another basic psychological need) when we go to work for “the man”.
We need to feel competent, autonomous, and connected. And the modern world, with it’s efficient markets and rapid technological change, frustrates these needs.
Understanding how we got here helps us cope. Understanding brings solace. It helps us know we’re not alone.
Solace is good. But we can we do better than that. Here are some suggestions for restoring some semblance of felt competence into our lives:
This isn’t a particularly new, profound, or tricky piece of advice. But it can be difficult to embrace at times.
We are sometimes reticent to learn new skills. When it turns out we can’t complete a project because we lack a necessary skill, we might break out in anxiety, and then search for a work-around that depends only on our current skills instead of learning the new skill and “doing it right.”
But learning a new skill will typically yield much more benefit than simply getting a particular project done. New skills make us feel more competent than we think they will. That’s because they have a combinatorial effect with our other skills. And our expanding toolbox will help us stay competent longer than we otherwise would in a rapidly changing world.
What is your “go to” skill? And how does that skill help you add value to the world?
First, answer those questions for yourself. Then re-work your answer into a form that 1) you can explain to your friends and family, and 2) they can explain to other people.
Even if your skill is very narrow, and none of the people closest to you are in need of your talents, if they can explain to others what you do, they will themselves better understand your competence, and they will think of you as a go-to resource that they can tell other people about just in case they ever run into someone who might need your services.
If very few neighbors and family members can make use of your skills, you will have to find people who do. So here's a skill you should add to your skillset: the skill of finding those who value your other skills. If you are willing to affiliate, that means finding a job and managing your career. If you are a solo artist, an independent writer, or an entrepreneur, you will need to do some research, networking, and PR to build your audience or find your tribe. In short you need to find the people who can benefit from your skills.
The best kind of respect is mutual. If you long to have people see you as a go-to resource for something you're good at, it stands to reason that others are hungry for that kind of validation as well. If you make a habit of lifting others up, it will eventually come back around to you in a big way.
1 EL Deci, RM Ryan; The What and Why of Goal Pursuits; Pychological Inquiry 11 (4), 227-268
This essay is a modified excerpt of the long-form essay Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy.