Monday, April 25, 2011

You might say competent is "the new black." Or "the new forty." I wouldn't but whatever it is; I like it.

What’s wrong with being competent? I’m not sure when that word developed such a negative connotation in our collective view although I suspect it was right around the time just about every student in every second grade around the country was enrolled in the “gifted” program at school. Around the same time our national pendulum of imagined ability was swinging a wide arc pretty far away from “average.” But I digress.

I checked several sources and not one of them indicated that the act of being competent is a “negative.” Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary defines the word as “having sufficient ability or authority.” The Oxford University Press Dictionary takes it a step further and then defines competent as “having the necessary skill or knowledge to do something successfully.” Secondarily, they define the word as “satisfactory or adequate, though not outstanding.”

You might say that’s damning with faint praise, but given the stories that dominate headlines of the day, doesn’t competent sound pretty darn good? No? Consider this: What if the response and solutions offered to address the economic meltdown during the fall of 2008 had been termed “satisfactory or adequate?” Or how about the devastation that resulted from the Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Wouldn’t we feel better if we could've called that response “satisfactory or adequate?” Ditto the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I rest my case.

I’m taking this opportunity to launch a campaign to reintroduce the word ‘competent’ into our national lexicon. And yes, can I get an “amen!” on that?! Some genuine enthusiasm, satisfaction and confidence in our voices when we use it? We can do it. We really can. Let’s try.

“How was the customer service rep when you called about that mistake on your invoice?” “Competent! He was competent!”

Or how about this: “Did you get the report you requested on the survey results?” “Yes, she did a competent job.”

“How was the city snow removal last winter after the big storm?” “It was competent! What a relief.”

Who wouldn’t welcome this? How content we would be if instead of waiting to be wowed by the creative geniuses we hope to find in our families, our schools, our employers, our communities and our elected officials, we were all nicely satisfied with competence. I’ll take competence any day.

It’s all about expectations. Somewhere along the line we decided that when it comes to quality of life, good enough wasn’t good enough. We want outstanding. We need exceptional. We desire unprecedented success in order to deem anything worthwhile. And the sad fact is that much of this expectation for “the best” in every facet of life was the result of exactly nothing. We haven’t grown increasingly smarter. We’re not more clever than we ever were. It’s little more than an outgrowth of what Alan Greenspan rightly called “irrational exuberance.” Competence was viewed as just one baby step away from failure, or at the very least, from the dreaded “average.”

Being competent has been severely underrated; we should give it its due. In fact, in light of the endless blame, the divisive rhetoric and the lack of responsibility being spouted by so many government officials these days in the wake of our deficit, our involvement in the Middle East, and the relentless employment malaise, I submit the next candidate searching for wholehearted support from Americans of every political stripe adopt this slogan as his or her campaign tag line: “The competent candidate.” Talk about capturing the public’s attention! Imagine what could be accomplished simply by competence!

Where’s Harry Truman when you need him? I’m sick of everyone who claims to have the answers, or lists the excuses, or calls for investigations or spends time passing the buck. I’m already tired of the 2012 Presidential campaigns. I suggest we choose to support candidates who show by word and deed that they can do the job at hand. While we can’t predict the circumstances that may arise to challenge any leader’s ability, we can hedge our bet by voting for garden-variety competence over flash any day of the week. I can’t help but think we’d all be much better off supporting candidates who demonstrate that they have limited interest in their legacies or in their own re-election but have relentless interest in the situations right in front of them. And guess what? It just can’t be a bad thing to leave behind a legacy of competence. What a concept.


Richard said...

That was an adequate post Renee. So many things are awesome or incredible today. If you were stuck in the ‘80s, I guess you’d be totally rad. Most people can no longer be satisfied with using words like adequate, competent, or okay. I was recently in the grocery store when I heard a woman remark to her friend, or shopping partner - whatever she was, that the selection of produce was awesome. Awesome? Really, produce?

What would Edwin Newman or William Safire say?

renee said...

Hi Richard!

It won't surprise you to know that as my boys entered their teenage years, I asked them to never let me hear them call something awesome unless it was - by all measurable and objective standards - awesome.

Did it work? Modestly well, I believe. Although it happened from time to time.

The only time I get a kickout of "awesome" is when it is used ironically. Always makes me laugh.

Edwin and William would weep. And who could blame them.

Thanks for your lovely remarks about my competence! : )

Anonymous said...

Think about how many times each day you ask how someone is doing and they say "great!" -- which is the new "fine" or more likely "adequate."
"Awesome" is the new great, and "Fantastic" the new really good.
It's all a matter of adjusting for the inflation of hyperbole.

renee said...

Thanks for weighing in here.

I guess we need to adjust and "deflate" to some degree if I have any hope of having the idea of "competence" count for anything get any traction here.

Thanks again for your comment.