The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Five: Competent People

There are lots of different ways you can tell you’ve officially become a grown up. One of them for me was recognizing that not only didn’t I have the bandwidth, either time- or intelligence-wise, to do every single thing out there in the world, I didn’t have the desire, either. This was actually a thing for me, I should note; when I was younger, I did make the assumption that I should learn how to do everything — not in the survivalist “soon the apocalypse will come and I will have to be able to make jerky out of my neighbors with a knife I have made from rocks and then make a shelter from their bones” sort of way, but more in the “why shouldn’t I know how to do all this?” way.

There are two ways of looking at this. One is in a defeatist sort of way, in that you’ve come to the realization that it really isn’t possible for you anymore, to paraphrase Neal Stephenson, to take ten years of your life to study super ninja arts and become a crime-fighting badass, and this means you’re not invincible and that probably one day you will die after all. The other way, which is the way I choose to look at it, is that you realize there are certain things you are good at, it makes sense for you to be good at them, and let other people be good at the things you are not — and not only that, but to appreciate the hell out of them for being so. Being a grown-up not only means recognizing that you can’t do everything, but also recognizing that the people who do everything else you do not are awesome, especially when what they do helps you do what you want to do.

This comes up a lot these days in the world of publishing, and in the fact that it’s now more easily possible for someone who is genuinely motivated to do so to take control of every aspect of his or her path to publication, from writing the books to editing, designing the pages, art design, publishing, marketing and distribution. As a consequence of this there’s also now a number of people who appear to believe that if one can do all these jobs, one should do all these jobs, and are making something of a didactic political position of it.

Well, you know, look. If it makes one happy to do all that work, then I say go and follow your joy. But leaving aside the practical issues involved, from a process standpoint I would hate it. Not only just because I am lazy, and doing everything is a lot of work, but also because I recognize that my core skills are in writing and (some) marketing, and everything else involved in making a book can be better done by other people who are so much better at the job, because in all the time I have spent focused on writing, they have spent all that time focused on their jobs. When they apply that knowledge and effort to my work, the end result is that my work is better than if I had just done it alone.

A practical example of that showed up here not too long ago when I showed off the cover for Redshirts, my upcoming novel. In addition to the final cover, I also presented three runner-up concepts for the cover. It’s instructive to me that even the rejected covers for Redshirts, whipped up by designer Peter Lutjen and art director Irene Gallo, are so much better than what I could design on my own, not only aesthetically but also as advertisements for the book. Why are these covers so good? Because this is what Peter and Irene do. And they’re doing it for my book. To the extent that people who don’t know of me give the book the time of day, it will be because of their competence in their field, just as, once they dig into the book, my competence will have to come into play.

(And even when you do something well, competent people can make it better; I’m pretty good at drawing attention to my books, but for Fuzzy Nation I decided to call in a little help, and it made a difference.)

Publishing is an obvious example for me but it’s not the only one. We recently had a new water softener installed; it’s entirely possible that I could have installed it myself, armed with some tools and either a Time-Life book from the library or a handy-dandy Web page. But I went with the option of letting someone competent handle it, because then I know it’ll be installed right the first time by someone who’s installed dozens of them and knows everything about the process. As a result, I won’t get frustrated and eventually end up wanting to kill everyone in six neighboring counties because I’ve somehow managed to screw up installing my water softener and now I have no water in the house and I’ll have to call in a professional anyway, and until he or she arrives I’ll be marinating in my own inadequacies. Because, yeah, that’s fun.

The downside to working with competent people, if you want to call it a downside, is that competent people very often cost something — usually money, but sometimes something more subtle than simply cash on the barrelhead. What I’ve learned over time is that the benefit one receives from working with competent people (or having them work for you) often compensates you just fine. If it doesn’t that’s something to factor in for the next time. It may also be the case that sometimes you don’t have the option of getting to work with competent people or having them work for you. And that is what it is; you work with what you have to work with. But if you have the option, I think it’s the way to go.

So, yes: I can’t do everything. I don’t want to do everything. And the things I can’t do, I want people who are good at those things to do them for me. And when they do, here’s what I say: Thank you. And, will you take a personal check.

29 Comments on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Five: Competent People”

  1. Ever since the Beatles, bands have been expected to write their own music – and to apologize when they sing someone else’s music.

  2. As I can think of any number of bands who have successfully made hits of other people’s songs, I’m not 100% onboard with the “apologizing for singing other people’s music.” Also, from a practical point of view, it behooves bands to write at least some of their own music, because its the songwriters who get compensated for radio play, not the performers, and then there are publishing rights to think about, etc.

  3. Good advice on the publishing front. When people decide to self-publish, one of the first things they hear is that they are going to have to do all of the work involved in book production themselves.

    The reality is that they just need to hire folks to help them, and in many cases, those will be the same freelancers that the Big 6 publishing houses use.

    Does it cost money? Yes. But publishing is a business, regardless of who does it, and whether you pay up front or give away a percentage of your sales forever, you’re going to incur those costs.

    I’m grateful for the pros that I’ve worked with, and will cheerfully admit that I couldn’t have done it without them.

  4. Most of the music the Beatles played in their first year or two was other peoples’. Also, Justin Beiber got started by putting videos of himself singing other peoples’ music on Youtube. It’s just one more way in which Justin Beiber is the DIRECT musical descendant of the Beatles.

    In other news, growing my own wheat would completely suck.

  5. If I may be permitted to illustrate the opposite of a Heinlein Competent:
    “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled
    person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but
    their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize
    their mistakes.[ The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory
    superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher
    than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their
    abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the
    situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher
    than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may
    weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume
    that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the
    miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self,
    whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error
    about others.”
    Some of the psychopaths that I’ve worked with suffered from this.
    Actually, it was we coworkers who suffered. My wife and I both worked
    at a university under a Dean of the College of Arts & Science
    whose only valid publication was as the 3rd and least of 3 coauthors
    at UCLA (by a Professor, a senior trad student, and this loon as
    junior grad student) on “Delusions of Adequacy. Not metacognitive
    enough to see the self-applicability. Eventually, after my contract
    was terminated because I was popular and opposed the bootlicking
    Department Chair who followed every whim of the Dunning-Krugeroid, a
    year or two later the Academic VP demoted the Dean to mere Associate
    professor, and dissolved the College of Arts & Sciences completely.
    Thus, without firing the Demented Dean Dunning-Krugeroid and getting
    the university sued, there was simply no
    Deanship any more. Mind you, they could not cut the pay of the Dean,
    or risk lawsuit. The change was for 3 years, i.e., the Dean was given
    3 years to find another position. They simultaneously got rid of the
    (marred) Dean’s lover, who’d been conveniently Assistant Dean. The
    ex-Dean still managed to hire the Dean’s Spouse, who bombed on own
    You were talking about Science Fiction publishing; I made a detour into the Bizarro world of Academic Publishing. Each can be heaven or hell. Depends on networks of competence.

  6. I think hiring competent people to do things for you is more a function of having money then being older (though age and disposable income are certainly correlated)

  7. Personally I like to try to install various items around the house. I have learned that in order to be successful, you have to be willing to admit defeat if failure arises and call in the competent people suffering the slings and arrows of various other household inhabitants if necessary. The sheer joy of turning on the faucet and seeing it work without leaks is worth the risk. Same with the ceiling fan. Saying “I told ya I could do it” is another sweet tidbit on top of that.

    Having said that, there have been enough competent people who have come to my rescue without laughing to make me grateful for them also.

  8. I suddenly feel compelled to invent a currency called Dunning-Krugerrands, with which to pay the salaries of incompetent people who can’t be fired…

    I am in the process of self- (re)publishing my dad’s handbook on teaching sight-reading. It will not be nearly as good as a professional editor/publisher/design team could make it, but then I only have a budget of a couple hundred bucks, and I only expect to be able to sell maybe 50-100 copies. Sometimes do-it-yourself is the only practical option; it makes it that much easier to appreciate the occasions when you can afford actual competent professional help.

  9. @Jonathan Van Post I think you just described my current Dean, AND the VP she’s sleeping with. Willing to wager that your monster wasn’t a Tea Party member though. Still, once a monster eats you……..

  10. Growing up, my parents used to call in a specialist for everything around the house. As a result, I formed the opposite world view from Scalzi: that I wouldn’t be able to do ANYTHING, and would always “pay a guy” (or gal.)

    So, part of my growing up was also the opposite; learning that I was capable of doing minor home and car repair on my own. It gave me a nearly unhealthy amount of pleasure when I realized that I could replace the driver’s side mirror on my wife’s car for less than half what the dealership wanted, and own an extended bit socket set to boot!

    Changing light switches, installing toilets, and patching walls are all things that I do on my own now. There remains a vast array of things that I pay others to do, both to make my home and professional life go more smoothly, and I appreciate the specialized skills and knowledge they bring to the table, but for me, I’m thankful that I gained some faith in myself to take care of the small stuff.

  11. For me, the realization was that there are people who *like* doing stuff I hate. I could never be a doctor, cop, high-school teacher, or copy editor, but there are people who like doing it and are good at it.

    The problem is recognizing who is and who isn’t competent at a job that you know nothing about. I’m still working my way through the phone book trying to find a competent plumber who charges a fair price.

  12. Yeah, I tried doing the whole DIY self-publishing thing with my first book. It was an educational experience. As much as I enjoy typography (I’m a font nerd, no apologies) and can play a competent graphic designer on television, there are people who do it better and working with them would be both less work for me and more fun for all of us. So, the next book will be professionally published, because that’s the level of quality I want to work at.

  13. Lisa Mann/Nat Mund: I grew up with a mother who expected my father to be able to do certain things around the house, things “women don’t do” (according to her, i e installing ceiling fans). I grew up with a father who just never had the mechanical aptitude–when he *did* install a ceiling fan on the second-floor ceiling, somehow his foot went through the floor and created a rather large hole in the first-floor ceiling (don’t ask, even my father couldn’t explain it).

    I married a man whose introduction to automotive maintenance was when my rather meat-fisted FIL approached him when he was 11, to help my FIL do some work on his Fiat Sport Spider. My FIL hung my husband by his ankles, while my husband got his much smaller hands into the area my FIL was trying to work on. Thus began my husband’s indoctrination into How To Do Things.

    Years later, after we were married, my mother asked my husband if he had the right kind of tools my father could borrow to put in a new sink faucet. My husband volunteered to put in the faucet himself. Perhaps a month later, my mother confided to me, in a tone of wonderment, “It still works!”

    I’m all for doing what I can do. But I know the limits of my competence. I’m not too proud to hire somebody. I’m very lucky to have found a man who’s competent enough, that as a matter of fact the only thing we *have* needed to professionally install was, of all things, a water heater.

    Jonathan vos Post: Your tale is one of several reasons why I decided not to pursue a graduate degree. Academic infighting is teh suk!

  14. I don’t take this post to mean one shouldn’t become competent in a wide variety of things if you want to, but rather that it’s nice to be able to turn to people who are really good at doing something you either can’t easily learn to do or don’t want to do for some reason.

    I’ve always liked the Heinlein quote on specialization not so much for the list of specific skills, but for the idea that human beings should stretch themselves and apply their full capacity to many things. That doesn’t translate to doing absolutely everything oneself, rather it means not to sell yourself short. By all means, pay someone else to design a book cover, install a water softener or work on your car if you like. But do it because you want to, not because you can’t learn to do it. I hear so many people say “I can’t cook” or some other easily acquired skill and it mystifies me. Yeah, you might not become a top chef, but anyone can learn to cook a decent meal. And when you want something beyond your skills, yes, it’s nice to have amazingly skilled people who can do that stuff and we should be thankful for them and others like them in various fields.

  15. I work in tech support, so I can say that dealing with competent people is a godsend. My job involves answering phone calls and dealing with clients so that the competent people in the background won’t be bugged and are able to do their job. That’s my competency, giving them space to work and fielding irate dinks who want to “talk to someone working on the problem. (You’d be surprised how many people there are like this, who don’t understand that the people fixing the problem won’t be able to do it if they’re constantly answering the phone.)

    Having access to skilled people is wonderful. Even better if they enjoy what they do, as that passion is evident in their work.

  16. I’m grateful for competent people too, though I use Tim Ferriss’ justification: it’s not cost-efficient to do it all myself. That’s why at one point in my life I outsourced all my cooking to the local all-you-can-eat buffet – and ended up saving money! :))

  17. Beacuse of the length, I read your essay? Jonathan. I don’t understand it very well since I am far removed from academia but what I do get is the utter incompetence of the people described therein. The idea of such egocentric and arrogant behavior almost eludes me. Sad to think that educators can be like that.

    Back to Mr. Scalzi’s point though… like him I truly appreciate competence. It can be hard to find; very hard indeed. Perhaps that was your point Jonathan. When I find compentance I appreciate it enourmously. That’s why I like Whatever so much, and the many fine folks who share their thoughts, humor, and insights. So thank you for sharing your story Jonathan, and making me thankful that I play in a competely different sandbox.

  18. Being up to my greasy elbows in a clutch job makes me qualified to comment. I am not a mechanic by trade. It’s a combination of many issues that determine which things to try yourself and when to pay a professional. Money, skill sets, time. I got a quote for a new clutch and it was $850. About $200 of which was parts. Being on the poor side led me to figure if I could get it done that’s over a weeks take home. I figured a full day to do it. Well it is the end of the full day and the transmission is still in the truck. I made progress, just not as much as I had figured. Worst case I have a 1965 Plymouth Valiant I can drive to work if it comes to that.
    Both choices have benefits. There is satisfaction in taking something broken and fixing it. Not having your savings take a hit is another. On the other hand pay and it’s done and done right in next to no time. Drop it off then pick it up and it’s all better.
    One of the influences in my particular case is the age of the truck. It’s a 1993 Ford Ranger with 206K miles. It’s worth about two grand. Makes it a little more painful to drop almost half of that into it. I have some skills with a wrench. This is the biggest automotive project I have tried. Pushing my skill set a bit maybe. If I pull it that will boost the satisfaction level.
    I am not beating down the competent help side of things. I have worked in a few trades and know the difference the right tools and the experience to know which tools are the right tools can do. If you’ve never done something there’s a good chance you won’t even know when you do it all wrong. The kind of thing that will cause a pro to cringe and charge you a little more to fix it when you call them in to fix your mess.
    Business wise I lean much closer to our hosts view. Get competent help. It’s worth every dollar and leaves you time to do what you do best.
    What I would be thankful for would be an improvement in my ability to judge when to pay and when to do it myself.

  19. I’m glad I am not the only one who had to learn this.

    For me, it was corporate life that forced me to stop being the “I WILL DO ALL THE THINGS” kind of person. I started my career at a teensy data center and doing all the things is what got me promoted up through the ranks, so I was used to owning everything – and working 24/7. When I moved to a huge global corporation, I had to learn that I am simply not allowed to do all the things. There’s a process for everything and you have to live with it, mostly because there’s no other choice.

    Once I realized that it was okay for me to let other people do the jobs they’re employed to do, my stress level went down exponentially. I hadn’t realized just how overwhelmed I really was until I was forced to stop taking on everything. The only downside for me is that I had to learn that even if people aren’t competent, you still have to let them do their jobs. It still makes my eye twitch, sometimes, but not only can I not do everything, I also can’t be responsible for everything, either. (Still working on that last one.)

  20. The Internet has enabled me to stretch my competencies in ways I never would have been able to do otherwise. Case in point: This summer we had a friend visiting us from several states away whose Honda Odyssey’s passenger-side mirror had come off its motorized mount after a minor impact and was being held in place with tape, hence was no longer adjustable and sat at a useless angle. Five minutes of online research gave me what turned out to be perfect advice on how to force the mirror back onto its mount. Ten minutes of trial-and-error got it back in place, and its power adjustment has worked ever since. This after our friend had been told by a Honda dealer that (of course) the entire outside mirror including casing and motor would have to be replaced.

    I had never attempted such a thing before (or needed to), and will likely never need to again, but it felt great and probably wouldn’t have been feasible 10 years ago. One new skill that people are developing in the modern era is the ability to filter what’s useful and trustworthy online from what isn’t, and apply it accordingly to make repairs such as this. The other side of that coin is that we now have all sorts of new ways to be stupid as well, such as making online sexual hookups that can get you robbed and murdered (as happened to an ex-administrator at my child’s middle school).

  21. I hate to leave such a wonderful conversation, but I wrote 4,200 words of science fiction today, chapters of two nearly completed novels simultaneously. And I have a double issue of Analog that came in snailmail today, with as cover story, the first of a 4-part serial by none other than Robert Sawyer, whom I like about as much as John Scalzi. It was intimidating enough to go to Caltech with David Brin… So to bed.

  22. I never learned anything about car fixing, because my mother was afraid that I would learn bad words from my father during the process. (It never occurred to her that by 7th grade I already knew all those words, and what they meant.) Still, I grew up with the idea that any man should be able to fix his car. After breaking (yes, actually breaking, not bending) a brass shaft while attempting to change a fan belt, I finally admitted that my competence in car fixing is limited to replacing a battery or changing a tire. It isn’t that I would rather pay someone else, it’s that if I ever expect to drive the car I MUST pay someone else. So, I echo your appreciation of competent people.

    My core competence lay in being able to make enough money so that paying competent people was not a problem. So I concentrated my efforts there.

    I agree that you should put your effort in writing, in which you are more competent than most of the planet, and let others edit, make covers, sell books, etc.

  23. What unholyguy said. I’m pretty competent at DIY,building, car maintenance and other things besides. I pay someone else to do these things now because, quite simply, I earn more money for my time sitting down writing. It is also the case, as you imply, that getting older you become more aware of how limited your time is, and become more selective about how you spend it.

  24. @ Lila – when you get that published, could you please mention it here somewhere? I would dearly love a copy.

    Ah, competent people. They are a balm to the soul. My husband (an extremely competent person himself) loves his current job about 100x more than his last job, and the difference is almost entirely due to the competence level of the people he works with.

  25. when I was a growing up on a farm, it was pretty obvious that the most successful farmers were the ones who could fix their equipment, weld, plumb, and do electrical wiring, rather than hire someone they couldnt afford and waste time they didnt have for the repair guy to show up.

  26. I’ve had a lot of arguments over the years with people who are incredulous at my lameness when I say things like I don’t weld very well and can’t be bothered to learn. They’ll lecture me on my lack of welding prowess and then, usually, wither under my response of: oh? which welding are you good at? I drew a line under arc and gas with mild steel with a touch of brazing… how did you get over the problems with TIG and MIG of the arc fusing? Or don’t you find the nasty way that Aluminium spits and melts and doesn’t seat to steel well… and how about that stainless stuff? Hard eh?

    A lot about being competent isn’t about doing something in a half arsed way but in knowing your limitations such that you understand the stuff that you shouldn’t be doing without learning a LOT about it.

    I have the same discussions about programming, car repair etc…

    Knowing your limitations is a very important skill and there’s nothing big and clever in doing something you’re not competent to do because you think you ought to be able to.

  27. one of the things I am thankful for is that I dont have to farm or be a hunter/gatherer to eat. I am very thankful there are others who take on that brutal, exhausting, job. But I am also thankful for having grown up on a farm, for everything I learned as a result. hm. now that I think about it, there are quite a few things I didnt like doing but am thankful that I did.

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