Living on the Edge of Incompetence

OverTheEdge

Being good at things is the key to success. Painfully obvious, right?

That means being good, having mastered skills, ranks far higher than other commonly touted “keys” to success, such as:

  • Overcoming fears
  • Just getting started
  • Rejecting societal norms
  • Having the best attitude

Sure, being a terrified, procrastinating, peer-pressured, pessimist probably won’t help you master skills. But that doesn’t remove the fact that mastery, both in your career and in your personal life, is the most important element.

Why Being Skilled Matters

For your career, the argument is simple: we live in a capitalistic world where, all else being equal, the people with the rarest and most valuable skills get the biggest rewards. Assuming you can convert those rewards to what you desire in life (do you want a big house or location independence?), mastery leads to career success.

For your personal life, the argument is subtler but I believe the same logic applies. If you have skill, achieving success becomes easier in almost any area of life:

  1. Health - mastering a sport or exercise routine will keep you healthy, while mastering your own habits and willpower can ensure that they stick.
  2. Relationships - mastering your interpersonal communication helps, whether you’re trying to find a new relationship or sustain an existing one.
  3. Learning - improving the way you learn has a ripple effect, where ideas you pick up can be integrated into any other area of life.

Even if you disagree that mastery is the most important element, I think most people can agree it is at least a very important part of living a successful life.

What Encourages Being Skilled?

The biggest gains in skill come when you are situated on edge of your current competence. If you stay with what you’re already good at, you won’t improve much.

Being way outside your level of skill isn’t conducive to mastery either. Unless you can receive positive feedback, or regular wins amidst failures, it is difficult to learn from your mistakes. The best way to train as a sprinter isn’t to run against Olympic athletes from day one. It’s to race against someone just a bit faster than you, so you’ll know when you make improvements.

Therefore, practicing for improvement should always be at the edge of incompetence. Where you have enough skill for positive reinforcement, but not enough skill to be considered good–yet.

Living on the Edge of Incompetence

If you accept the first premise: that mastery is an essential ingredient to successful living. And, you accept the second premise: that mastery requires an environment of being on the edge of your incompetence. Then the conclusion is difficult to escape: successful living requires living on the edge of incompetence.

For the last several years I’ve made a deliberate effort to live on my edge of incompetence. I make an effort to choose goals and projects that are not just difficult, but require skills I don’t currently possess.

In the business projects I’ve undertake with this blog and website, I’ve always chosen ones that were slightly outside my skill level. I wrote and designed a free ebook, then created one for sale, then created one with an affiliate program, finally now I finished a hybrid between an information product and a monthly coaching service.

Successfully executing the latest project would have been a certain failure a few years ago, but I slowly advanced my edge of incompetence. And I did that by living on it.

My other goals have also put me on the edge of incompetence. From learning French, taking salsa classes, practicing to cook more elaborate dishes or training to do a pistol squat and handstand pushups. The goals weren’t just difficult (although challenge is important) they also pushed me beyond my current skills.

Hard Goals vs Skill-Acquiring Goals

It’s possible to set a difficult goal that doesn’t explicitly require gaining new skills. For example, let’s say I set a goal to give up junk food. This might be a difficult goal, but after having done 30-Day Trials as a method for changing habits for years, it probably wouldn’t improve my skills significantly.

Similarly, I could set business goals that don’t really express what skills are going to improve. I have a goal to increase my business income to a minimum of $3000 per month. That will be a challenging goal to meet, but it doesn’t make it clear what skills I’ll need to improve and where I’ll be sitting on the edge of my incompetency.

Deciding exactly how a particular project will push you to learn new skills is an often neglected step. It’s the difference between aimless and deliberate practice.

Setting up Camp at the Edge of Incompetence

I feel, for many people, they want to get out of their edge of incompetence as soon as possible. It’s cold, painful and irritating outside. Far nicer to be safe and warm within your existing skills.

So when they live their life, the venture to the edge of their skills only lasts as long as it needs to be. When they need to pass a test, they study really hard. However, when the exam no longer threatens their security, they don’t bother reading a book on a difficult subject.

Not only do I feel this is suboptimal, since these people will only increase their skills when forced to, it is also a lousy way to live.

If you set up camp on the edge of your incompetency, you get used to scaling your frustrations and learn to tolerate the uncertainty. So when most people are complaining about being outside the comfortable home of their skills, you feel fine because you never closed the door.


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  • http://StudySuccessful.com Stefan | StudySuccessful.com

    Great post Scott.

    I try to live on the edge, in both my college life and my blogging ‘carreer’.

    At college, I’m now procrastinating on purpose. I know I have only a few hours left, this means I have to learn a lot in a short amount of time. This requires another technique than normally cram, cram and cram.

    At my blog, I feel like I’m growing also. I’ve started as a simple .blogspot.com blog, bought my own domain, wrote simple articles and I feel like I should live on the edge now by trying to deliver ‘real’ quality. More in-depth content, longer posts. Less ‘how-to’ posts. And it works out pretty well. And before I settle, I’m moving to the edge again, I want to write a free e-book, just like you did. It will be hard, and I hope I can fail a couple of times, so I can learn.

    Thanks for your ever motivating posts.

  • Chrissie

    Hi Scott!

    I came across your blog today, and already I can tell I’ll be going back here often. Your posts are indeed motivating and inspiring! I am currently in college, studying a course I do not love (hate is too strong a word), and everyday I feel like my passion for learning is fading. I don’t want to be stuck doing something I do not enjoy, but hey, right now I have no choice but to graduate, so I might as well endure it. However, upon reading some of your posts, I think I have an idea on how to get through a few more years in school, while developing as many skills as I can, so that I’ll be capable of doing whatever it is I choose to do in the future. Anyway, before this comment turns into a blog, I shall stop now and say THANK YOU! Keep writing! This is a wonderful site you have here! Take care :)

  • http://www.markcancellieri.com/ Mark

    Living on the Edge of Incompetence. I love it!

    Are you familiar with Warren Buffett’s discussions of the “circle of competence”?

    “You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.”
    http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1996.html

    “If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter.”
    http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1999htm.html

  • http://www.davidjparsons.com David Parsons

    Great post scott. A good view on the topic.

    Scott, Are you sure procastinating on purpose is the best idea? Will this really be good for you in the long run? Not really. Its better to take it one day at a time and put most of our classes into our long term memory so we can build upon our knowlage in the future. Just think about it.

    -David

  • http://genywealth.com/ RJ Weiss

    Thinking of the times when I actually accomplished something, it was because I just reached just outside of my comfort zone.

    When I have failed, I usually set large goals that require me to be far out of my comfort zone. Your business model, is a great example of this. Thanks.

  • http://enlightr.com Craig Thomas

    Argh procrastination… I really need to get down and do certain tasks. The edge of incompetence sounds quite right – maybe I should ditch my comfortable chair…

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Mark,

    I think Warren Buffet, with regards to making analysis and investments in companies, is right on. My argument is a different one, I’m not arguing that being on the edge of incompetence yields better results for your effort on that edge (the opposite, it usually yields worse results), simply that being on the edge tends to expand that edge and gain better long-term results.

    If I were a stock trader (which I’m definitely not) I would probably sit on the edge by making “fake” investments in companies on the edge of my expertise, watching them, tracking feedback, without actually risking my capital.

    David,

    Not sure what you’re talking about? There’s no procrastination on purpose here. I’m living my dream right now. ;)

    -Scott

  • http://richardshelmerdine.com/blog/ Richard Shelmerdine

    Loved the post. I try to live on the edge too. I’ve kept up my New Years Resolution too!

  • http://StudySuccessful.com Stefan | StudySuccessful.com

    Scott, I think David ment that one to my comment!

    @David
    Of course I don’t think procrastinating will be good for me in the long run, that is why I do it only once on purpose. My aim with this procrastinating is limiting my time to study for a test, so I need to find other ways to study, because I don’t have time for that. This means I’m exploring new study tactics and I think experimenting and finding new (out of the box) ways to study will be (very!) good for me in the long run.

    I can tell you, I’ve passed the test, I’ve studied in a different way than before. Instead of reading over and over again I read the material just once, with classmates. We’ve talked about the material and I think that way of studying is something I need to explore more, because it works for me!

  • http://simplyblog.net Miguel

    Scott,

    Thanks for sharing. We won’t grow if we don’t place ourselves in positions of discomfort. For example, my strength training routines are rough, but that’s how I’ve increased my squat from 150s to 296 Ibs! It hurts, it’s hard but I wouldn’t be there without the hard work and consistent training.

    -Mig

  • http://MotivationalSmartAss.com Avish Parashar – Motivational Smart Ass

    Hi Scott,

    Nice post – I love the phrase “Edge of Incompetence.”

    Your article ties to areas I’ve been looking into quite a bit around talent, and how we get better at things. Your idea fits directly in with books like Outliers and Talent is Overrated. The key to improving is to “live” just a bit beyond your current skill level and make it a point to focus on getting better not just repeating what you already do.

    When I teach improv comedy I use the phrase “leap before you look.” not as advice to take fool hardy risks, but rather to encourage people, once they have assessed rick and return, to jump in even if they don’t have it all figured out.

  • http://bondchristian.com/ bondChristian

    I love your point about skill acquiring goals. i need to refocus some of my goals to be very specific about that point in my goals. I think I naturally do it fairly often, but it needs to become a deliberate habit.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • http://www.alternaview.com Sibyl – alternaview

    This is a really good point and a great insight. We really do have to always keep pushing ourselves to go beyond the status quo and what we are used to always doing if we really want to accomplish new things. It is easy to fall into the trap of just doing what is comfortable, but where is that really getting us. Thanks for sharing and what we should aim to do in order to take steps in the directions we desire.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Stefan, You’re right! I just automatically respond to all things addressed to Scott.

    -Scott

  • Ian K

    Salut Scott,

    Quelle belle synchronisation, j’ai entendu quelque chose de similaire dernièrement.

    “Loving to fail”

    Je crois que comprendre cette idée c’est être disposer à vivre et grandir car, tu sais qu’échouer signifie que tu vas apprendre et devenir meilleur. Puis avec assez d’échecs tu es sur de réussir.

    Ces trois mots ont été pour moi la clé de la porte l’expression. Ma vie a entièrement changée depuis que je les comprend.

    C’est trop fou. Quand tu comprends, tu t’amuses dans des situations où l’on s’entend que tu réagisses négativement. T’es là «Yes, j’ai échouer! Pourquoi est-ce que j’ai échoué?». C’est vraiment plaisant.

    Tu es toujours gagnant, comme cela aurait toujours dû l’être. Tu sais?

    Bon, à la prochaine,

    Ian

    P.S. Je ne suis pas l’auteur de ses mots, je les ai entendu dans une interview avec Ryan Clauson, listenactattract.com
    P.P.S. If you ever feel tired of reading my French of Québec, tell me.

  • Dave

    I would argue that not living on the edge is suboptimal in terms of improvement, but recently I’ve become weary of improvement for improvement’s sake. I believe that you should often improve yourself, but always? I find that exhausting it times, sometimes my enthusiasm wains. Now I’m very practiced in the mindset of powering through the down times (competing in varsity level sports in both high school and college-that’s how I’ve lived most my life), but I’ve also become more aware on how short life is. Do I really want to spend so much of my time fatigued?

    Do I really want to be out of my comfort zone all the time? Do you? Sometimes it’s exhilarating; in fact, if I stay in the comfort zone too long I’ll get bored! But I think you should enjoy your success, and one of the benefits of self improvement it that you can perform at a higher level than before WHILE remaining in your comfort zone. That’s an excellent reward in my opinion.

  • Ian K

    Au fait de le premier P.S. ça aurait dû être «l’auteur de ces mots»

    Ian

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Ian,

    Non, c’est bon. Je suis d’accord, c’est obligatoire pour amélioration aimer les échecs, ou apprécier les echecs.

    Dave,

    The improvement needs to be tied with your goals, and you need to retreat into your comfort zone to recover your energy. I think the main reason for excess fatigue is that the goals you have putting you on the edge aren’t motivating enough to really enjoy the process.

    -Scott

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  • http://soisilicon.com Ruang

    One of the best posts I’ve ever read. I’ve officially cut off all contact with anyone who says mindset is more important than skills.

  • 4johnny

    The maxim of “living on the edge of incompetence” applies to working in hierarchical organizations, in avoiding the “Peter Principle” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle).

    It can be applied both to yourself for personal improvement, and to the org as a whole to improve employees *prior* to promotion.

  • http://evarykr.com Eva

    This is a really great post, and am glad I randomly came across it today. You have explained well why goals must be somewhere in the middle between achievable and challenging. You have also shown how one can attain great achievements beyond current imagination just by getting incrementally better, constantly — very motivational! Thanks!

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  • http://www.personal-success-factors.co Steve-Success Factors

    I like your post, and I also like some of the comments that I read. I think there is a balance of 1) deliberately choosing to live on the edge of incompetence and 2) also building up your areas of strength and comfort. In other words, I am really good at and really enjoy some at some core competencies, but I can also choose to take on projects that will help me develop new skills.

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  • http://www.selfhelptrends.com/ Self Help Trends

    Hi Scott,

    Have you read the book “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge? There is a topic in the book that discusses on Personal Mastery which I feel is very good for people who want to learn about achieving Mastery.

    Regards,
    Edmund Yeo

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