Embrace the Edge of Incompetence

April 3, 2019

by Laura Gassner Otting

We’re grown-ups.  We have jobs. Those jobs were earned because we demonstrated competence in a task.  That task is valued by the boss, and so the boss pays us. Seems logical so far, right?

But here’s where it goes off the rails.  We learn to derive our value from the continued demonstration of competence.  And we become conditioned to live only in the center of our excellence. Stray too far to the right, fail.  Stray too far to the left, fail. Stay in your lane, deliver the product, make the sale, excel.

A few weeks ago, I had spent the day in a middle school and high school, my own kids’ middle school and high school, to be exact.  There I was, shuffling from class to class, attending parent-teacher conferences in a parade of 15-minute appointments, where my respect for these educational warriors and child development professionals exploded just about as quickly as my anxiety of the things my sons seemed to not know how to do.

I then realized that’s exactly what needs to happen.

Why stick around and wallow in last year’s algebra when there is geometry and, eek, calculus to learn?  Why think about biology when the chemistry is right out there for the taking? Gather ye rosebuds while you may, old time is still a-flying!  They are constantly living in the unknown, learning new things, failing. They live on the bleeding edge of incompetence every day. And they do it while also battling puberty.  Hats off to you, my children. Hats off!

But what about us adults, on the other hand?  We do exactly the opposite. Becoming conditioned through rewards, assessments of self-worth, and extrinsic measurements of value, we continue to do exactly the things we know how to do.  We prefer to live inside of our comfort zones of excellence. We gain confidence from repetitive tasks that demonstrate competence, and in turn are rewarded. And we gotta stop.

Enduring Discomfort

Because it is when we place ourselves in the vortex of discomfort, we learn what we are made of. We learn what we can withstand, what we really want, and what we are willing to fight to have.

Several years ago, I ran a marathon.  I didn’t do it because I was some great athlete.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite. I ran that marathon because a year earlier, I ran my very first mile.  It was in the throes of a midlife crisis; I was not in shape, exhausted, and in pain. So, I signed up for a boot camp and six weeks of work paid off as I was able to run the end-of-class mile without stopping.  One thing led to another, and a year later I found myself staring down Mile 20 of the Boston Marathon.

Here’s the thing about Mile 20: it’s where the training ends and the mental fortitude begins. The longest training run you do before a marathon is 20 miles.  So, there, on marathon day, empty and alone, you must dig deep and decide who you are and what you’re made of. You have two voices in your head.  One says, “You’ve got one more hour, and then run, walk, or crawl over that finish line and you will today and forever more be a ‘marathoner.’ You’ve got this.” The other voice says, “What are you fucking crazy?  You are going to die out here. Just stop. Right the hell now. Abort! Abort! Abort!”

The only person who decides which voice wins is you.

Will you live in the center of your excellence, the thing you know how to do, and be satisfied?

Or are you going to leap onto the bleeding edge of your incompetence and see how much you can grow?

When was the last time you did something, on purpose, that you knew was going to be really hard?  What about the last time you pushed yourself to do something where failure wasn’t just a possibility but a probability?  How long have you waited to stretch and do something new?

“Someday” is not a day in the week.  Today is the day.

Embrace the unknown. Embrace the suck. Embrace the edge of incompetence. I guarantee you’ll come out better and more confident for it.

Laura Gassner Otting inspires people to push past the doubt and indecision that keep great ideas in limbo because her presentations make listeners think bigger and accept greater challenges that reach beyond their limited scope of belief. Laura has spoken across the United States and internationally to universities, companies, conferences, accelerators, TEDx, and the US Military. She is the author of Mission-Driven: Moving from Profit to Purpose (2015) and the recently-released Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. Laura’s free “Limitless Assessment” is available here. She lives with her husband, two teenage sons, and troublesome puppy outside of Boston, MA.