The Theory Of Learned Incompetence

Nancy B. Alston

Just after college I spent two long, brutal years slaving away in the pits of the Los Angeles entertainment industry. I discovered a lot in my time in LA. I discovered that I wasn’t cut out for 100 hour work weeks. I discovered that too much sunshine is as bad as not enough (and that while rain doesn’t cause cancer, it does cause big, messy accidents on the I-10.) I discovered that In ‘n Out Burger makes the best darned cheeseburger in the whole wide world (and that “Animal Style” is both messy and delicious.)

But the most important thing I discovered was my “Theory Of Learned Incompetence.”

You see, my last year in LA I had this boss named “Bob.” (Name changed because “Bob” was a pretty cool guy and I’d rather not make him feel bad.)

“Bob” was a smooth talking gay, Jewish guy from New York City who spent the big bulk of his work day surfing the net for porn. Not to say that “Bob” wasn’t good at his job. He could schmooze and deal like nobody’s business and taught me tons about how to deal with people.

The problem was that “Bob” couldn’t do anything *but* schmooze and deal.

* Answering the phone? Uh uh.

* Sending a fax? Better if he didn’t try. Toner is expensive, after all.

* Replying to an email, licking a stamp or figuring out how to set up the voicemail on his brand spanking new cell phone (he lost the last one on a trip to France)? Yea, uhh. Not gonna happen.

Now, what struck me about “Bob’s” utter, kindergarten-like incompetence was that at some point-on the way to landing his nice, cushy quarter-million a year gig-he *must* have learned how to do this stuff.

You see, in the entertainment industry, there’s a pretty strict ladder to climb. You start off way at the bottom as somebody’s assistant. You go through heck for a couple years fetching coffee, doing mindless admin stuff and trying to prove that you have “initiative.” And then if you’re lucky and tenacious you move your way up, get your own assistant, spend all your time chatting on the phone and surfing porn-and so the circle of Hollywood life continues.

So once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to use a copy machine.

Once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to put somebody on hold, get another call and then get back to the first person without accidentally calling the fire department.

Once upon a time, “Bob” was competent.

Until he learned that if he wanted to get ahead, he’d have to *learn* to become *incompetent.*

You see, in Hollywood (and, from what I’ve seen, in all of corporate America) if you know how to do something well, you’ll inevitably be roped into doing it again and again and again. In fact, if you’re too good at something (fixing the copy machine. Getting coffee. Preventing wars.) you tend to get tied down to that one thing while all the less competent folks around you get promoted.

So what do ambitious folks like “Bob” do?

Consciously or not, they *learn to be incompetent.*

They pour all their energy into developing a few core, useful, sellable skills and let everything else slough off and atrophy until the folks above them have absolutely no choice but to promote them.

“Bob keeps messing up the copy machine and we’re afraid if he keeps getting close to it it might explode” they say. “We’d better just get him out of there and give him that corner office.

Nice Theory, But What Does This Have To Do With Marketing?

Just this. In my day to day life I run into a lot of new entrepreneurs and business owners-refugees from the corporate lifestyle-who haven’t quite woken up to the fact that while the theory of learned incompetence will help you get ahead in corporate America, it’s absolutely deadly when you’re out on your own.

When you’re stuck in the “ivory tower” you can forget how to do all sorts of stuff, knowing full well that the infrastructure of that big, fat company will take care of you.

But out in the real world, if you decide to forget how to work the copy machine, the copies don’t get made.

If you decide to forget how to answer the phone, there’s no one there to save you.

And if you decide to become incompetent at marketing…well, pretty soon you don’t have any sort of business at all.

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