Competence Rules

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Valerie Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. In a previous post, I wrote about how many of us have a set of rules inside us that determine whether someone is truly successful (or talented or worthy) and how those rules make us feel like fakes.  She writes: “Competence rules include words like should, always, don’t, and never. For instance, you might be guided by an inner rule that says, If I were really smart, I would always know what to say.”

If you believe that, you risk feeling that you’re not really smart because sometimes you don’t know the right answer or the right thing to say. Read that sentence again. “I’m not really smart because sometimes I don’t know the right answer.” It sounds absurd, right?  Not to your brain, which can be very literal and rigid in its thinking. You give your brain a rule, and by gosh, it will stick to it.

Recognizing these rules is the first step to changing your thinking. Young says that you may recognize parts of yourself in several of them, but you’ll usually have one dominant type. Here are the five competence types.

  • Perfectionists believe that 100% perfection is the only standard that matters. They are laser focused on how something is done. You might be only holding yourself to these standards, but you also be passing them on to others (your employees, spouse or children, for example.) There’s a right and wrong way to do everything, and your way is the right way. Most people believe that if they’ve tried their best, they’ve accomplished something. Sure, they’d like to do better, but there’s no shame in falling short. There’s always another chance to get it right. The Perfectionists know this is a stupid way to think. You either get it perfect, or you fail. There’s no middle ground.
  • The Natural Genius believes that true competence means having inherent intelligence and ability. Success should be effortless; if you have to work and struggle to accomplish something, you’re not really gifted or smart. “I should get it right on the first try.” “If I were really, good, this wouldn’t be so hard.” They don’t understand that there might be a few steps between novice and expert. You’re either an instant success – or a failure.
  • The Expert believes that unless you know everything, you know nothing. People with this mindset believe that there is a defined threshold of knowledge and understanding that a person must meet in order to be deemed expert “enough.” This is more all or nothing thinking; you need to know everything before you can claim to be any kind of expert.
  • The Rugged Individualist believes notion that true competence equals solo, unaided achievement. The only achievements that really count are those you reached all on your own. If you were part of a team, or had some great help along the way, you can’t claim that achievement. If someone else had that idea or tried that method, you can’t take any credit for your contribution. And you can never ask for help – people will know you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • The Super Woman/Man/Student’s competence rests on the ability to juggle multiple roles masterfully. Although you might resemble the perfectionist, for you competence has as much to do with how many things you can handle as it does with how well you do them. In other words, you have to be really, really good at everything you tackle. Young blames this style on the modern concept that women can have it all – as long as they do it all. Great mom, great wife and lover, great hostess and great performer at work. Exhaustion is just the price of admission to the party. Store bought snacks at the soccer game? You’re a failure.

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