In an age of intricate equipment and high-speed machines and vehicles, one’s survival and that of one’s family and friends depends in no small measure upon the general competence of others.

In the marketplace, in the sciences, the humanities and in the government, incompetence2 can threaten the lives and future of the few or the many.

I am sure you can think of many examples of these things.

Man has always had an impulse to control his fate. Superstition, propitiation of the right gods, ritual dances before the hunt, can all be viewed as efforts, no matter how faint or unavailing, to control destiny.

It was not until he learned to think, to value knowledge and to apply it with competent skill, that he began to dominate his environment. The true “gift of heaven” may have been the potential to be competent.

In common pursuits and activities, Man respects skill and ability. These in a hero or athlete are almost worshiped.

The test of true competence is the end result.

To the degree that a man is competent, he survives. To the degree he is incompetent he perishes.

Encourage the attainment of competence in any worthwhile pursuit. Compliment it and reward it whenever you find it.

Demand high performance standards. The test of a society is whether or not you, your family and friends can live in it safely.

The ingredients of competence include observation, study and practice.

17-1. Look.

See what you see, not what someone tells you that you see.

What you observe is what you observe. Look at things and life and others directly, not through any cloud of prejudice, curtain of fear or the interpretation of another.

Instead of arguing with others, get them to look. The most flagrant lies can be punctured, the greatest pretenses can be exposed, the most intricate puzzles can resolve, the most remarkable revelations can occur simply by gently insisting that someone look.

When another finds things almost too confusing and difficult to bear, when his or her wits are going around and around, get the person to just stand back and look.

What they find is usually very obvious when they see it. Then they can go on and handle things. But if they don’t see it themselves, observe it for themselves, it may have little reality for them and all the directives and orders and punishment in the world will not resolve their muddle.

One can indicate what direction to look and suggest that they do look: the conclusions are up to them.

A child or adult sees what he himself sees and that is reality for him.

True competence is based on one’s own ability to observe. With that as reality, only then can one be deft and sure.

17-2. Learn.

Has there ever been an instance when another had some false data about you? Did it cause you trouble?

This can give you some idea of the havoc false data can raise.

You could also have some false data about another.

Separating the false from the true brings about understanding.

There is a lot of false data around. Evil-intentioned individuals manufacture it to serve their own purposes. Some of it comes from just plain ignorance of the facts. It can block the acceptance of true data.

The main process of learning consists of inspecting the available data, selecting the true from the false, the important from the unimportant and arriving thereby at conclusions one makes and can apply. If one does this, one is well on the way to being competent.

The test of any “truth” is whether it is true for you. If, when one has gotten the body of data, cleared up any misunderstood words in it and looked over the scene, it still doesn’t seem true, then it isn’t true so far as you are concerned. Reject it. And, if you like, carry it further and conclude what the truth is for you. After all, you are the one who is going to have to use it or not use it, think with it or not think with it. If one blindly accepts “facts” or “truths” just because he is told he must, “facts” and “truths” which do not seem true to one, or even false, the end result can be an unhappy one. That is the alley to the trash bin of incompetence.

Another part of learning entails simply committing things to memory—like the spelling of words, mathematical tables and formulas, the sequence of which buttons to push. But even in simple memorizing one has to know what the material is for and how and when to use it.

The process of learning is not just piling data on top of more data. It is one of obtaining new understandings and better ways to do things.

Those who get along in life never really stop studying and learning. The competent engineer keeps up with new ways; the good athlete continually reviews the progress of his sport; any professional keeps a stack of his texts to hand and consults them.

The new model eggbeater or washing machine, the latest year’s car, all demand some study and learning before they can be competently operated. When people omit it, there are accidents in the kitchen and piles of bleeding wreckage on the highways.

It is a very arrogant fellow who thinks he has nothing further to learn in life. It is a dangerously blind one who cannot shed his prejudices and false data and supplant them with facts and truths that can more fittingly assist his own life and everyone else’s.

There are ways to study so that one really learns and can use what one learns. In brief, it consists of having a teacher and/or texts that know what they are talking about; of clearing up every word one does not fully understand; of consulting other references and/or the scene of the subject; sorting out the false data one might already have: sifting the false from the true on the basis of what is now true for you. The end result will be certainty and potential competence. It can be, actually, a bright and rewarding experience. Not unlike climbing a treacherous mountain through brambles but coming out on top with a new view of the whole wide world.

A civilization, to survive, must nurture the habits and abilities to study in its schools. A school is not a place where one puts children to get them out from underfoot during the day. That would be far too expensive for just that. It is not a place where one manufactures parrots. School is where one should learn to study and where children can be prepared to come to grips with reality, learn to handle it with competence and be readied to take over tomorrow’s world, the world where current adults will be in their later middle or old age.

The hardened criminal never learned to learn. Repeatedly the courts seek to teach him that if he commits the crime again he will go back to prison: most of them do the same crime again and go back to prison. Factually, criminals cause more and more laws to be passed: the decent citizen is the one that obeys laws; the criminals, by definition, do not: criminals cannot learn. Not all the orders and directives and punishments and duress will work upon a being that does not know how to learn and cannot learn.

A characteristic of a government that has gone criminal—as has sometimes happened in history—is that its leaders cannot learn: all records and good sense may tell them that disaster follows oppression; yet it has taken a violent revolution to handle them or a World War II to get rid of a Hitler and those were very unhappy events for Mankind. Such did not learn. They reveled in false data. They refused all evidence and truth. They had to be blown away.

The insane cannot learn. Driven by hidden evil intentions or crushed beyond the ability to reason, facts and truth and reality are far beyond them. They personify false data. They will not or cannot really perceive or learn.

A multitude of personal and social problems arise from the inability or refusal to learn.

The lives of some around you have gone off the rails because they do not know how to study, because they do not learn. You can probably think of some examples.

If one cannot get those around him to study and learn, one’s own work can become much harder and even overloaded and one’s own survival potential can be greatly reduced.

One can help others study and learn if only by putting in their reach the data they should have. One can help simply by acknowledging what they have learned. One can assist if only by appreciating any demonstrated increase in competence. If one likes, one can do more than that: another can be assisted by helping them—without disputes—sort out false data, by helping them find and clear up words they have not understood, by helping them find and handle the reasons they do not study and learn.

As life is largely trial and error, instead of coming down on somebody who makes a mistake, find out how come a mistake was made and see if the other can’t learn something from it.

Now and then you may surprise yourself by untangling a person’s life just by having gotten the person to study and learn. I am sure you can think of many ways. And I think you will find the gentler ones work best. The world is brutal enough already to people who can’t learn.

17-3. Practice.3

Learning bears fruit when it is applied. Wisdom, of course, can be pursued for its own sake: there is even a kind of beauty in it. But, truth told, one never really knows if he is wise or not until he sees the results of trying to apply it.

Any activity, skill or profession, ditch-digging, law, engineering, cooking or whatever, no matter how well studied, collides at last with the acid test: can one DO it? And that doing requires practice.

Movie stuntmen who don’t practice first get hurt. So do housewives.

Safety is not really a popular subject. Because it is usually accompanied by “be careful” and “go slow,” people can feel restraints are being put on them. But there is another approach: if one is really practiced, his skill and dexterity is such that he doesn’t have to “be careful” or “go slow.” Safe high speed of motion becomes possible only with practice.

One’s skill and dexterity must be brought up to match the speed of the age one lives in. And that is done with practice.

One can train one’s eyes, one’s body, one’s hands and feet until, with practice, they sort of “get to know.” One no longer has to “think” to set up the stove or park the car: one just DOES it. In any activity, quite a bit of what passes for “talent” is really just practice.

Without working out each movement one makes to do something and then doing it over and over until one can get it done without even thinking about it and get it done with speed and accuracy, one can set the stage for accidents.

Statistics tend to bear out that the least practiced have the most accidents.

The same principle applies to crafts and professions which mainly use the mind. The lawyer who has not drill-drill-drilled on courtroom procedure may not have learned to shift his mental gears fast enough to counter new turns of a case and loses it. An undrilled new stockbroker could lose a fortune in minutes. A green salesman who has not rehearsed selling can starve for lack of sales. The right answer is to practice, practice and practice!

Sometimes one finds that what one has learned he cannot apply. If so, the faults lay with improper study or with the teacher or text. It is one thing to read the directions; it is sometimes another thing entirely to try to apply them.

Now and then, when one is getting nowhere with practice, one has to throw the book away and start from scratch. The field of movie sound recording has been like that: if one followed what recordist texts there have been, one couldn’t get a bird song to sound any better than a foghorn—that is why you can’t tell what the actors are saying in some movies. The good sound recordist had to work it all out for himself in order to do his job. But in the same field of the cinema there is a complete reverse of this: several texts on cine lighting are excellent: if followed exactly, one gets a beautiful scene.

It is regrettable, particularly in a high-speed technical society, that not all activities are adequately covered with understandable texts. But that should not stop one. When good texts exist, value them and study them well. Where they don’t, assemble what data is available, study that and work the rest of it out.

But theory and data blossom only when applied and applied with practice.

One is at risk when those about one do not practice their skills until they can really DO them. There is a vast difference between “good enough” and professional skill and dexterity. The gap is bridged with practice.

Get people to look, study, work it out and then do it. And when they have it right, get them to practice, practice, practice until they can do it like a pro.

There is considerable joy in skill, dexterity and moving fast: it can only be done safely with practice. Trying to live in a high-speed world with low-speed people is not very safe.

The way to happiness
is best traveled with
competent companions.

  1. 1. competent: able to do well those things one does; capable; skilled in doing what one does; measuring up to the demands of one’s activities.
  2. 2. incompetence: lacking adequate knowledge or skill or ability; unskilled; incapable; subject
    to making big errors or mistakes; bungling.
  3. 3. practice: to exercise or perform repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill.