The theory of learned incompetence

Right out of 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 Los Angeles. I found out it wasn’t made for 100 hour work weeks. I found out that too much sunlight is just as bad as not enough (and while rain doesn’t cause cancer, it does cause big, messy accidents on I-10). I found that In ‘n Out Burger makes the best damn cheeseburger in the entire world (and that “animal style” is messy and delicious).

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

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

“Bob” was a smooth-talking gay Jewish boy from New York City who spent most of his workday surfing the web looking for pornography. He doesn’t mean that “Bob” wasn’t good at his job. He could chat and treat like no one else and he taught me tones on how to deal with people.

The problem was that “Bob” couldn’t do anything *except* chat and negotiate.

* Answering the phone? uh huh

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

* Reply to an email, lick a stamp, or figure out how to set up voicemail on your new cell phone (lost the last one on a trip to France)? Yeah huh It’s not going to happen.

Now, what struck me about “Bob’s” utter, kindergarten-like incompetence was that at some point, on the way to getting his nice, cushy quarter-million-a-year job, He *must* have learned how to do these things.

You see, in the entertainment industry, there’s a pretty strict ladder to climb. You start very low as someone’s assistant. You spend a couple of years looking for coffee, doing pointless administrative stuff, and trying to show that you have “initiative.” And then, if you’re lucky and tenacious, you work your way up, get your own assistant, spend all your time talking on the phone and browsing porn, and so on, the circle of Hollywood life continues.

Once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to use a photocopier.

Once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to put someone 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 would have to *learn* how to become *incompetent.*

You see, in Hollywood (and, from what I’ve seen, throughout corporate America) if you know how to do something right, you’ll inevitably be forced to do it over and over and over again. In fact, if you’re too good at something (fixing the photocopier, getting coffee, preventing wars…) you tend to stick with that one thing while all the less competent people around you get promoted.

So what do ambitious people like “Bob” do?

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

They pour all their energy into developing some basic, useful, and salable skills, and let everything else unravel and atrophy until the people above them have absolutely no choice but to promote them.

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

Good theory, but what does this have to do with marketing?

Just this one. In my everyday life I come across many new entrepreneurs and business owners, refugees from the corporate lifestyle, who have not yet caught on to the fact that while learned incompetence theory will help you get ahead in America corporate, it’s absolutely deadly when you’re alone.

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

But in the real world, if you decide to forget how the photocopier works, the copies don’t get made.

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

And if you decide to become incompetent in marketing… well, pretty soon you won’t have any kind of business.

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