What is the Real Difference Between Competence and the Appearance of Competence?

From all outside observation, most people would say I was very good at school. I got good grades and generally followed the rules. I have years of report cards and transcripts that show how capable I was, how much I learned. My final high school GPA was about 3.6 on a 4.0 scale. The problem is, I don’t remember learning anything academic in high school. Not just that I don’t remember NOW what I learned nearly 30 years ago, but that back then I didn’t remember what I learned pretty much immediately after the final exam.

Over my years of school, I was regularly placed in TAG (Talented and Gifted) programs and other advanced courses for extra work and extra credit. I preferred to be busy and to be challenged most of the time and these classes were way more interesting with more opportunities for independent study than the regular classes. The problem was I was also very lazy and had extremely poor study skills. What I did know was how to get good grades without trying to hard. This skill was only sharpened in college.

I went to a state school for university and had a fairly good time of it. I started living in one of the campus dorms, but I didn’t even last a year. My roommate and I had very different backgrounds and thoughts about what was OK to do with the other’s boyfriend when the other was out of town. Needless to say, my relationships with her and the boyfriend were short-lived. I moved into an apartment in the basement of a house near campus during spring break of my freshman year.

Having my own personal space and being able to get away from campus life worked much better for me. I stayed in that place nearly until I graduated, enduring multiple roommates with incredible drama of their own. Eventually, my then boyfriend moved in and we got along great. I’ve generally not had great experiences with female roommates; this apartment served as a backdrop for many wholly dysfunctional and ultimately failed roommate experiences.

As for academics, I had a plan for graduation from the get-go and I ended up having to modify it only slightly over time. My chosen program was environmental science, which required a specialization. Initially, I wanted to do engineering, but when I started taking the math and physics courses required, I switched to public policy. Then in my senior year, I found myself with free time. After the fall term, I had one course left to take for graduation and two full terms of time left. After speaking briefly with an advisor, I signed up for enough economics courses to get a minor and that was that.

My final GPA in college was around 3.4 in the 4.0 scale. I also don’t remember anything I learned there either. So did I actually learn anything? If a tree falls in a forest…

I believe metrics can serve a purpose. The grades I was able to achieve in school did say something about my abilities, but not what anyone thought they were measuring. And this is in no way a fault of my teachers or professors either. How would they have known, in a class of at least 25, that a student who did not appear to be struggling at all was not actually receiving the information they were providing?

The fact of the matter is that I could have chosen to learn in school. It was just never incentivized for me to do so. The incentive was given for good grades and I was able to get good enough grades to place me top-of-class adjacent without having to do the work. I never cheated; I was just entertaining myself by following (and sometimes “hacking”) the syllabus of each class. If points were given for attendance, I would make certain to attend. If the lowest midterm test score would be dropped, I would study for the first test, get a great grade, and then quit paying attention, or even attending class at all. I have never been able to take notes in lectures. I don’t really know how to “study.” I do have a pretty epic short-term memory and a knack for picking out info that feels like it’s going to be on the test later.

So, was I a good student? I doubt I would be remembered by any college professor; I hardly remember any of them myself. But there may be a few high school teachers who remember me. Would they say I was a good student? Maybe, but probably not. They would probably remember me being curious, but not necessarily studious. I would keep to myself and perform adequately enough to not draw attention. I expect my teachers would say I was smart, but with little ambition or desire to apply myself. I would concur with those statements. But I would also say I was a terrible student.

In retrospect, having an autism diagnosis back then would have made a difference in my life in that I may have, at least, had someone to push me to be more accountable, to live up to my potential. But in a series of small and conservative public schools, I was never going to be the person who actually needed help, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered much.

What my teachers would never know is how little I got out of school, in general. Again, this was no fault of theirs. In the end, I did not need any help to avoid failing, so I was not the priority. Competence or merely the impression of competence? I’m not sure I even know the answer at this point.

Moreover, does it matter? If I give the appearance of being competent at something, does that mean I am competent? By whose standards? I believe there is a difference, if only to the person in question. My imposter syndrome started early. I knew by the time I was about 10 years old that my job was to go to school and get good grades. Nobody ever told me my job was to learn at school. Nevermind that once we got a set of encyclopedias in the house, I would have learned far more by NOT going to school every day. But then who would validate that I learned anything?

I also believe this concept applies to so many aspects of our society. If the impression of competence is treated the same as competence in our society, what about actual corruption vs its appearance of corruption in our political system? What about actual patriotism vs the appearance of patriotism? If we choose to not care at all about whether or not something is real, or merely acted out for show, we are opening ourselves up to being manipulated and led by bad actors who are seeking the lazy way to acquire power for themselves. We constantly use symbols to show off affiliations and indicate what we believe, but if we examine our own actions, we should realize that the shallow use of these symbols only hurt us, allowing us to avoid the hard work of really participating in our system. It’s more than just voting or picking sides in a Twitter or Facebook debate. Most people can’t even be bothered to do the former while they’re too busy with the latter.

If I ever were to get into politics, I would need to be a better student in order to do the job right. This is the exact reason I don’t believe I’m cut out for the job, despite my thinking about policy nearly constantly. I do not crave the spotlight, hate public speaking or even being on camera and generally do not like being in crowds (exception being any sort of live music concert). What I am able to do is see right away, intuitively, who in the political arena is interested in the job of making policy, which is the down and dirty, but interesting part of the job. Most people who get into politics, though, are in it for the show, to be in front of cameras, with big crowds, for the power. Those who have no concrete policy agenda, or one that consists of wishing real existential problems away rather than rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work of policymaking have no business in the sphere. They want to give the impression of being a politician without actually doing the work.

If we allow ourselves to get duped by these bad actors, our country and our world will never be the same. We will run out of time on the climate crisis and hasten the devolution of world order. Hard choices will need to be made, but selecting the people you like best because they tell you what you want to hear is like eating a diet of candy and beer and wondering why your health ends up faltering. Our collective narcissism must come to an end.

So vote for someone real. Someone who you think is smarter than you, who seeks the position for the right reasons, that they want to be a good public servant. This is what the job SHOULD be all about.

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