Our stucco house has brick decorations below the windows. In this long semi-incarceration they came to my attention as I sat in the warming sun with little else to do. And I thought how little real competence I have in my world. Any Sumerian laborer could probably make bricks and lay them better than I could. In fact, of all my vast environment, I am capable in very few activities.
This world of marvels is constructed of fragile relationships. Experts and specialists mine and grow and plan and build. Sometimes I impose a certain order, but mostly I simply accept the end result. I can buy food, I can sit on a purchased chair, I can look at my house. But I could no more grow my food, make my chair, nor build my house than I could regulate my internal temperature or mindfully digest my meals. Magic surrounds and permeates my existence.
What competence have I attained in over seventy years? Some fleeting and now irrelevant electronic coding. Some upon-a-time ability to work collaboratively with others. Mostly, even now, an ability to plan a little and react a lot as unexpected situations arise. A bit of ability here, a bit there, none extraordinary.
Schoolday myths proclaimed the Jeffersonian joys of yeoman farmers. Full independence on a self-sufficient homestead where everything was crafted by the owner _ an American metaphorical ideal. Yet, like all childhood stories, that whole concept was flawed from the beginning. No farmer mined iron and forged his own tools, built not only his gun but also the machines to construct the parts, ate only the produce planted and harvested by his own hands. From the beginning, people specialized, gaining surplus from what they did best to pay for what they could not do at all.
Capitalism loves fluid roles which shun competence_ ideally, any worker can be replaced, nobody is indispensable. That’s ok, because the associated lie is that with luck and hard work, anyone can succeed and prosper in anything. A competent person rises to become wealthy, famous, and remembered forever. Artisanal crafts are worn down to machine-capable rote tasks, with an interface anyone can perform. Driving a car when first invented took a skilled chauffeur.
Retraining is a vicious pretense which proclaims that competence can be easily transferred. Throw someone out of a job at which they have become competent for years and make them do (badly) something they have never encountered. Also, sever all their current implicit connections _ lateral ties to fellow employees or clients for example. Then let them go naked into the marketplace to start over. Sixty year olds are treated as if they were fifteen. This massive and intractable flaw in modern consumer capitalism is what will eventually lead to its overthrow.
Competence is not purpose. One learns competence in reference to doing something, even if that something is as mundane as laying bricks. It often takes years to become good at a task, when actions are all but unconscious and errors are intuitively avoided. Competence most clearly shows when things go badly _ especially as tasks become more complicated.
Finally, competence does provide an element of pride and self-worth. Who we are is inevitably tangled with what we do. But the only competence any of us can keep with certainty is that of our approach to life. It must be secure, flexible, and reliable. Good luck with that …