Competence (or how I learned to stop worrying and love being average)

02 Jan

One of the things I miss most about University life is being really, really good at something. Essay writing, specifically about English Literature, was something I was once very good at – and I don’t mean to brag by saying that, but that was definitely one of my skills. Now it’s useless. There are days when I think, I would happily sit down and write an essay about Dickens if there was anyone out there who cared about what I had to say, who would read it and say ‘well done, that was great’.

Now I work as an English teacher, and although there are elements of that degree that I use, it’s rare that anyone looks at anything I’ve done and says ‘well done, that was great’. My kids certainly don’t. They don’t walk out of my lessons with enormous grins like in those adverts the DfE has produced, as satisfying as that would be. As a teacher, I am fine, but I consistently feel a temptation to be the best teacher. To beat all the others and prove how I excel, at whatever it is I do. I want that glow of satisfaction, and I want that external recognition, no matter what it takes.

This is a long-standing problem. It happened with me and my sister to an extent, but then I suppose that sibling rivalry isn’t that uncommon. It also happened at school, especially in Sixth Form. It happened on my internship year, with my fellow interns, and on my PGCE, with my fellow placement students. It has even happened in church, where I have tried to prove how I am the best Christian, as mad as that sounds. The most knowledgeable, humble, insightful, best preacher, best leader… and so on. I seem to instinctively want to show off my own greatness.

The biggest issue with that is that it is utterly destructive. I could be the best teacher my kids had ever been taught by, probably. I could mark all their work intensively, plan lessons that were always exciting and vibrant, make sure that every student felt cared for and followed up on, prove that I was an innovater and a visionary to my colleagues, but at what cost? That would mean sacrificing time with my wife, and it would mean working to the detriment of my hobbies and interests, and it would probably also affect my health, and all of those would mean that I wasn’t the best at something else. I wouldn’t be the best husband, or the best writer, or the best chef. So how do I work out what to prioritise? What should my ‘thing’ be?

Most Saturdays I read The Times, and so much of that seems focused on how to be the best whatever – to cook the best Christmas dinner or own the most stylish house or read the best books or go to the best restaurants, if you live in London at least. But then each week it also has a section devoted to undoing its own work – showing you how to be happier and more content, how to build better relationships with your children or partner, or having better self-esteem. The secret is almost always to not be so obsessed with work or your smartphone: to be more present where you are.

Over the past few (exhausting) years of adult life, I’m increasingly starting to realise the hard way that the latter is a better way to be; the era of my being the best at anything has to come to an end. It would be very easy to rage against that, but I think it’s okay. So with that in mind, my new year’s resolution for 2016 is just to be competent at what I do. To be a competent teacher. To be a competent writer. To be a competent husband. To be a competent chef. Nothing more, nothing less – just passionate, defiant competence.

Deep down, I think competence is the secret, even if the word has acquired negative connotations recently. It doesn’t mean doing a lacklustre job, just doing what you do well and making sure that you do what needs to be done. Is it worth doing more? I’m not so sure, because if I keep trying to be the best at whatever it is, all that’s going to happen is that I start pushing other people down. I will start competing with others and driving them away, rather than working with them. It’s happened before, and that kind of showboating is no use to anyone. Surely it’s better for you to decrease so that others increase, so they can develop their talents and gifts alongside you – and if you’re always top of the pile at everything you do, there’s no way for that to happen. It’s a recipe for being a bad teacher, anyway, failing to trust and empower your students and doing all the work for them, and I’m sure that it has to apply elsewhere in life too.

Maybe that sounds like a terrible admission of defeat to you, but I think the alternative might end up spelling disaster. And anyway, surely putting that much stock by anything just equates to idolatry; it’s making something into your saviour that’s not capable of saving you at all. My history suggests that I will fall down, but for my sanity and wellbeing in 2016 I’m resolving to try and become less, whether I fail at that or not. I’ll let you know in time whether or not I turn out to be the best at being humble.

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Posted by on 02/01/2016 in Uncategorized


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