Living on the Edge of Incompetence


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.