The allure – and danger of competence

Posted on February 7, 2010

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Competent . . . and alone

I have signed up for Mary Jaksch’s Virtual Zen Retreat, and the first day – focusing on awakening the heart –  has prompted a question in my mind:

Do we respect and honor – and even idolize – competence too much?

Prioritizing competence can create barriers to intimacy.  I remember dating my first serious boyfriend.  I enjoyed having someone strong around, who could lift my heavy trunks and suitcases and open jars and such.  Who could protect me from bad guys at night.  Ahhh, young love 🙂  And, I admit, I probably took him and his wonderful muscles for granted.  But one day, I was moving and he wasn’t available.  I had a particularly heavy trunk that was near impossible to move, and I remember having to shove and drag it downstairs and out the door, internally cussing out the boyfriend the whole time.  My inner warrior woman feminist jolted awake.   I remember thinking, “I will NEVER rely on a man to help me with anything again.”  And I didn’t.  In the relationships and years that followed, I was Miss Competent, the girl who could take care of herself, who didn’t need some guy to make my life complete, who could take care of the check – and her own bills, who shoveled her own driveway and scraped her own car.  Who was perfectly content (on the outside) eating alone in restaurants.

Prioritizing competence can discourage collaboration.  When I was at the Big Company, we would evaluate employees (and be evaluated) based partly on our ability to work independently.  The less supervision required, the better.  We nurtured cadres of super-competent, independent workers – and were surprised when we found projects that duplicated efforts or repeated historical mistakes.

On the other hand, I’ve been so gratified and surprised when I reached out and asked for help from others, including industry leaders.  Important People who were busy and shouldn’t have had time for my questions and requests.  People who willingly shared so much value without asking for anything in return.  I wondered why they would share so much – until people started asking me for help and input.

When you ask for help, you give something valuable to the other person.  When people started asking me for help, it made me feel so good.  It made me feel like an authority.  It made me feel useful.  I wanted to provide even more information and assistance because that would cement my self-image as a knowledgeable and helpful person.

When you share your fears and weakness, you open the door to connection and intimacy.  I was raised in a good Korean household.  We didn’t acknowledge failure, we were like a public relations firm unto ourselves, trumpeting successes and burying information about failures.  Even among ourselves.  Growing up, conversations could be awfully short during challenging life stages.  But now, when I share my frustration about my less than perfect children with my mother, it feels like a lock on my heart is loosening.  And the support and encouragement she provides in response to these admissions of weakness can mean more than the congratulations she shares when things are humming along.

Similarly, I think in relationships, we sometimes want to be the person in control of our feelings.  We certainly don’t want to be the ‘needy’ one.  We cultivate sophisticated, clever, amusing exteriors and avoid exposing the soft, vulnerable interior.  But relationships evolve and move forward when we expose our vulnerable selves.  Our friends, colleagues and partners may admire and enjoy the clever and amusing side of us – but that side is hard to embrace and connect with.

Even in a corporate setting, admitting ignorance, asking for help can generate new ideas, better solutions and productive new relationships and collaborations.

So, today, I suggest taking a leap of faith.

  • If you need help, ask for help
  • If you want connection, open yourself up, take a break from being brilliant and clever
  • When other people reach out for help or connection, show them compassion

How about you?  Have you had any experiences (good or bad) where you took a risk and exposed your vulnerable side?  What happened?

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