Experiments with incompetence

Sometime back I attempted to recover incompetence. As odd as it sounds, it was supposed to be a spiritual journey of humility.  But just recently I received the first main ‘test’ of incompetence; and funnily, I failed in allowing myself to be considered a failure.

The story:

I am currently involved in Christian academics, thus writing articles and presenting papers is part of life. Recently I wrote an article, that I felt was quite good, and yet, because of my unfinished dissertation work, left me feeling insecure. I wondered whether the work was actually good or not, as I thought it was.

Presentation day, mine was the last presentation. And I found myself in disagreement with the attitude of the presenters and respondents, where there seemed to be a desire for one upmanship or even aggressive intent to prove oneself correct. I decided I was not interested in proving myself. Also, I was willing to accept that the paper’s idealism (a key point of my paper) was ill-founded. But I still thought it was an interesting enough paper and presented it passionately.

The respondent tore my paper, calling it unoriginal, and methodologically wrong. As I was listening, however, I had no feeling of sadness or insecurity. I knew my paper was not perfect, but I didn’t agree with the respondent. But I felt she had the right to say what she felt, and I took it as that. I chose not to respond, but the floor asked me to respond to the respondent. I quietly said that while I agree we have taken a different methodological approach, hence my writing may not be fitting within her methodology, there was only one thing I wouldn’t agree… and stated a theological point of difference. My comment was pretty normal and unagressive.

Other respondents went on, critiquing the idealistic stance I took, which I knew would be problematic and shrugged and defended idealism within the parameters of my paper. One or two comments were spot-on (and thus I will be editing my paper), but mostly it was a difference in opinion.

However, after the paper, people came up to me, feeling sorry for me for the way I was attacked. People tried to defend me, and encourage me. At first I didn’t quite get it, until I realised that people felt that I was unfairly attacked. And yet, because I didn’t fight back, they felt the need to fight for me.

My immediate instinct was to show that I knew what I was talking about, saying that I didn’t agree with the critique, and presented myself as positive by saying I was being curteous to the respondent.

However, I did not realise actually the message probably being sent was that the paper was weak but unfairly attacked.

Now that’s a meaning I had not intended, I didn’t want anyone to think that the paper, or I, was weak. I wanted to defend myself, to prove my capability, or better still, justify my high horse that I was actually holding back, a sign of great strength.

In fact, it is at that moment I failed. I failed the test of incompetence, of allowing people to think I am weak, unable, and poor. I told many people how wrong the respondent really was, and how I could justify my position.

This inability of mine to come across as incompetent, suggested how much ego I actually carried, and that when people thought less of me (the point of incompetence), it was something I would like to change and fight against.

To make matters worse, I just found out that one person publicly said that my paper was one of the weakest in the whole conference. Wow, if that wasn’t incompetence, what was?

But at that moment,  I realised that I must let that accusation stand. I must realise that if that paper is weak, if I am weak as a presenter, I must continue to seek to improve. However, if others think I am weak, I should not try to change their positions and beliefs by promoting/defending myself. Thus today, after hearing that comment, I did not fight back. And at that point, I realised that the journey towards incompetence is tough, but also possible.

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1 Response to “Experiments with incompetence”


  1. 1 Charles January 25, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Hey nayk,

    I can very much understand what you have to say. I am glad that you have ended it with a positive note – to improve and than feel dejected. Oftentimes, I have not done, what you did. The feeling of incompetence has left me hurt, and it took long to recover. By God’s grace, I did recover though.


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Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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