Beware the trap of accidental competence

- February 9, 2015 3 MIN READ

Being good at something doesn’t necessarily mean you should make it your life’s work. This cautionary tale shares why.

Exactly one second after the clients left our office, my whole upper body slumped forward on to the meeting table and I pillowed my head dramatically in the crook of my arms.

As I shut my eyes and groaned softly, my staff exchanged bemused glances.

“Good meeting?” they asked dryly.

“It was a great meeting,” I said, “they’re definitely very keen and they’d be fun to work with.”

So, clearly my exhaustion wasn’t anything to do with those clients.

No, it was everything to do with me.

You see, I’m a great people person (if I do say so myself!). My personality type is one that reads people well, is able to create a rapport quite quickly and in general, people feel I ‘get them’. Consequently, my role in the graphic design business I’d started had evolved away from doing any graphic design … and had become a very people-oriented one. I spent my days managing staff and suppliers, taking client meetings and being the person in our team responsible for smoothing things over with difficult people.

In short, I spent the vast majority of my days engaging in fairly heavy one-on-one interaction with others.

The problem is, being an introvert, that amount of contact with people is absolutely exhausting for me. In order to preserve my energy levels, I need to ration the amount of face-to-face interacting I do on a daily basis.

So how then did I end up in a such a heavily client facing role? I didn’t have an answer for that until I was at a conference a few years ago and heard these words:

“Don’t get trapped by accidental competence in something that doesn’t feed your soul.”

Whoah. That! That’s how I ended up in that situation.

As a creative person and an introvert, the stuff that feeds my soul has always involved spending quiet time at my desk, writing and designing (ie creating), with no one else around me requiring me to talk to them. It’s at the end of those kinds of days that I find myself buzzing with happiness.

But I’d been trapped by accidental competence into becoming the face of our business. I was good at that stuff, therefore it became my job.

So I got myself out of that role and went back to just being a designer. (Actually, I had a bit of a breakdown and that got me out of that role … but that’s a story for another day!)

And then – it happened again!

I started doing a small amount of consulting. And everyone I consulted to told me I should do more of it because I was good it at. And I admit, I was both flattered and got sucked in a bit because consulting is the dream for many isn’t it? It’s relatively ‘easy’ because you’re sharing your expertise in an area you’re highly conversant in. And it’s lucrative because the people you’re consulting to understand the value of your expertise and are willing to pay for it.

So I did more of it. And once again, my energy levels took a hit. Pretty soon I was dreading my consulting sessions. It mattered little that the people I was consulting to were genuinely lovely people. The fact was, my capacity for that kind of work was very limited, and I wasn’t respecting those limits.

So, lesson learned again (I do seem to need to learn hard lessons twice). I dialled back those consulting sessions to no more than one a fortnight. Then I dialled them back even further to a maximum of one a month.

And nowadays, I’m a lot more discerning when I hear the words “you’re really good at that – you should do more of it”!

Have you ever found yourself caught in the trap of accidental competence?

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"