The Competence Myth

post by Davis_Kingsley · 2019-06-30T18:55:49.014Z · score: 49 (23 votes) · LW · GW · 30 comments

When I was a kid, everything seemed sort of goofy, but there was also a sense that it wasn't really supposed to be competent. Yes, a lot of stuff targeted at kids was obviously dumb and bad, but it was for kids after all -- grown-ups knew what they were doing, and once we were grown up we wouldn't have to deal with that!

Once I became a teenager, it became pretty obvious that grown-ups didn't always know what they were doing either. [1] But there was still a sense that at the next level people would finally know what was going on, and that sense persisted for some time - perhaps soon it was "college students", then it was "professors", then it was "people in the private sector", then it was "experienced workers at more professional organizations"... at every level, after every hurdle, it turned out that things were about as slapdash and incompetent as before. It wasn't always the same exact patterns, but there was always something going wrong, and there was never the sense of "okay, now I can fully Trust the System".

Maybe the final straw came when I read or heard something from (IIRC) a Navy SEAL, who said that even in the SEAL teams there were people who were incompetent - in other words, even after extremely stringent training and selection processes that would be illegal for any normal organization to implement, they were still unable to achieve that fabled "okay, finally we're at a stage where everyone knows what they're doing".

Now, I'm not saying every single group is always and forever going to be incompetent - but what I am saying is that I wasted a lot of time thinking "oh, things are messed up now but once I reach this next educational/professional milestone, everything will be fine!" In point of fact that's just not the case, and you should plan accordingly. Almost regardless of what level of vetting and selection you implement, there will be some people who slip through the cracks, and there will be some systems or processes that aren't so good. [2] Lastly, if anyone can think of any large groups or organizations where this isn't the case, please tell me what they are! I'd love to be proven wrong on this.


[1] A school administrator once accused me of drawing something he described as "a pagan symbol from The Da Vinci Code" on some pillars in chalk. It was a simple design that I had made up in a notebook and thought looked good; I had never read The Da Vinci Code and had put up the symbols as a joke. The concept that the administration had investigated it and come to this conclusion was truly bizarre to me.

[2] This isn't an argument that you shouldn't vet or evaluate people at all, but rather one that you're unlikely to achieve perfection in such a process.

30 comments

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comment by Marshall Kirkpatrick (marshall-kirkpatrick) · 2019-06-30T21:53:20.940Z · score: 19 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I recently attended a conference called Gartner Marketing Forum, from the research firm Gartner, which does $3B in year in revenue. The most prominent VP there, who gave multiple keynotes, said “everyone thinks they’re in the most messed up organization in the world - and they’re right, because we’re all human!”

Personally, I’ve thought recently that the following question is not in fact a rhetorical one: given how incompetent and unmotivated so many people are, how do we even keep the lights on in this society?

I think that’s not a rhetorical question. A manager or leader has to figure out how to work with the team they’ve got. And millions of people in that role have figured out how to do it well enough. At least we’ll enough to grow the status quo, which of course is not good enough and is in aggregate a huge threat to the sustainability of the human race. But individual organizations function consistently with dysfunction that’s shocking when looked at in isolation.

comment by Viliam · 2019-06-30T22:20:32.288Z · score: 18 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, the more I know about how some things work, the more I am surprised that anything at all works.

Maybe we are so insanely productive, that even with 99% of human output wasted, the remaining 1% is enough to keep the lights on? But then, how wonderful could the world be if we could somehow use 10% of the output instead?

But more likely, it is something like the individuals believing all kinds of bullshit in far mode, but acting rather reasonable in near mode. There are all kinds of incompetence at places where incompetence does not mean immediate disaster; but when the dangers become imminent, someone will use their common sense (and perhaps work overtime) to do the right thing, and to prevent the lights from going out. Well, most of the time; because sometimes the last moment will be already too late to prevent the things from blowing up.

Or perhaps human work is mostly repetition, and you don't need highly competent people to do the same thing they did yesterday. Only once in a while circumstances change enough that someone has to work overtime and/or things blow up.

comment by TheMajor · 2019-07-01T09:22:24.722Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I personally think we don't need to posit a mechanism that explains why people's wrong beliefs don't cause immediate disaster for companies. In my worldview this is fully explained by selection effects in the market, both at the level of organisations and at the level of individual employees. Since long-term views are very hard to link to individual outcomes, the selection pressure is weaker here.

I'd like to point out that this does suggest that organisations and companies fail and go bankrupt regularly, we just don't hear that much about the quick failures (which I think fits reasonably well with observations, but I haven't looked into this all that much).

This is in fact also an/my answer to the non-rhetorical question why anything works at all. I disagree with Kirkpatrick in attributing this to individuals, which seems to suggest there is some class of millions of managers who have attained some mystical level of competence that somehow doesn't scale to groups.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-07-01T10:49:44.447Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW · GW
I'd like to point out that this does suggest that organisations and companies fail and go bankrupt regularly

That matches reality. The average age of companies in the SAP500 is now at 20 years and was 60 years in the 1950s: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/24/technology-killing-off-corporations-average-lifespan-of-company-under-20-years.html

Maybe it's not technology that's killing of corporation but incompetence?

As a corollary this would explain why government bureaucracy is often so inefficient, selection effects can't kill of disfunctional government departments.

comment by TheMajor · 2019-07-01T12:16:26.665Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Very interesting observations! Personally I'd perhaps phrase it the other way around, not 'incompetence is killing corporations' but more something like 'what changed in the past 70 years that allowed people to build long-living corporations back then and not now, assuming today's regular company deaths are caused by incompetence?'. My personal guess is that either back when these long-living companies were founded (~1890's) there was much more low-hanging fruit on the market, allowing less efficient companies to still survive, or alternatively that today's economic environment is much more risk-tolerant so the selection for competence happens much more *after* founding a company.

I agree fully with the government bureaucracy remark, although I suspect there are a ton of other very important effects at work there too (for example, out of all organisations I expect governments in particular to have high accountability and regular run-ins with Chesterton's fence, both of which increase bureaucratic load).

comment by Viliam · 2019-07-01T19:27:27.067Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is a disturbing line of thought, and... while I think this is not a complete explanation, it feels like it explains a lot.

The word "incompetent" does a lot of heavy lifting here, though. What exactly it means in this context? Do we play motte and bailey with meanings "a complete retard, making random decisions" and "less awesome than Elon Musk"?

Because if we assume that people are complete retards, then the market selection is not strong enough to explain what keeps the lights on. (Mathematically speaking, there are much more possibilities to screw up things, than the number of companies trying to provide electric power.)

So I guess the correct interpretation is that people are sort of competent, but the selection effect allows (some of) them to achieve more than their personal competence alone would predict. A complete retards would ruin any company, but if you find people who have a 10% chance of keeping the company running... then you simply need dozens of them in dozens of companies, and some of the companies will survive. But because the situation changes, the survival dice will be rolled again later, and the person who kept the company running yesterday may fail to keep it running today.

EDIT: This interpretation also fits the "low hanging fruit" hypothesis: For simple types of companies, you can find people who have a 10% chance to keep them running. For difficult types of companies, you can only find people who have a 1% chance. But if there is enough money, enough people will try it, and some of these companies will survive, too. Their life expectancy will be much shorter, though.

It could even provide an answer to Eliezer's post about competent elites: similarly to Peter Principle, if you are a super-competent person whose chance to keep the company running is not the usual 10%, but rather 50%, it is more profitable for you to actually try running a more complex company (where you have the 10% chance, and anyone else has 1%) instead. So it is true that more competent people end up in more complex companies, and at the same time, people end up in positions that exceed their personal competence.

comment by TheMajor · 2019-07-01T21:21:35.826Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think 'competent' should in this context mean something like 'has the ability to, after being pointed to a gap in the market, build and/or keep functional a company that fills this gap'. This agrees fully with what you said, there is an extreme lot of wiggle room between 'total retard' and this sense of competent (in fact, I think almost everybody lives in this wiggle room). Furthermore, I think it makes sense to naively think that the abundance of successful companies suggests a lot of people are competent in this sense, whereas I claim this is not the case.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-07-02T07:00:47.274Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are not a lot of CEO of big companies and those who are believed to be competent can draw huge salaries. Even if all the CEO would be competent the total pool of people might be still quite small.

There's also the interesting question of why we have successful cities that have lifespans of hundreds of years that get a lot less management and why companies that are managed by a CEO fail so often.

Why is the organization form of a city so much more stable?

comment by mingyuan · 2019-07-04T15:57:58.102Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Because demand for cities isn't volatile? Like, if you're a company, you're operating in the market, where people have a choice whether to use/buy your product/service. If what you're producing isn't high-quality/doesn't meet a market need, your company fails (and the quality of the product is often a direct consequence of a CEO's decisions).

Conversely, with cities there's a lock-in: people build lives there; they invest in their houses, communities, and personal relationships. Cities are not nearly as fungible as (almost all) products. So even if the city is poorly run, people have strong incentives to stay there rather than moving elsewhere.

Plus, a city is more than its organizational structure: it's the geographical features, the businesses that operate there, and the people who live there. (To some extent the latter two are downstream of the city's organization, but they're definitely not fully determined by it).

tl;dr it's a lot easier to lose customers than to lose citizens. I don't think the situations are all that comparable or that we can learn anything meaningful about competence by looking at the success of the average city.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-07-04T19:35:32.246Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cities do need customers for the products that they export as well. Otherwise they can't import the food to feed their population.

comment by jmh · 2019-07-01T12:30:28.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not completely surprised but would wonder how much of that is accounted by merger and it that should be considered the same as failure/bankruptcy cases.

I suspect the technology that would make mergers less costly has increased since the 50s. If so there were perhaps mergers that were not taking place but would have.

comment by stochastic_bit · 2019-06-30T21:53:23.695Z · score: 15 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe the incompetence level change.
Yes there are incompetence in the Navy SEAL, but for some one not in the Navy SEAL the incompetence will look like high quality job.

If you are John von Neumann then everyone else seem a little incompetent.

comment by Alb · 2019-07-04T15:16:47.961Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This post really strikes me as being a (rather pessimistic) perspective on life rather than a factual description of the competence level among humans.

Consider these two statement, which are both true:

  • Aerospace engineers do a lot of mistakes.
  • Aerospace engineers have been able to send rockets to space.

Everyone is free to hold the perspective that, since aerospace engineers are messing things up on a daily basis, they're incompetent; or that despite the fact that aerospace engineers do a lot of mistakes, they've been able to send rockets to the moon, which is quite an achievement.

It's important to look for mistakes but it shouldn't take over our perspective on things.

comment by justinpombrio · 2019-07-01T02:34:18.303Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Make sure you're not dividing people into the camps of "competent" and "incompetent" too strongly. Yes, competence varies between individuals. But it also varies between areas for a given individual. And it varies day-to-day.

Today I was getting ready to go for a bike ride. I filled a bottle of water, got the bike out, discovered that it had a flat tire and I couldn't fix it, and put the bike away. After I couldn't find the bottle of water. I looked everywhere, twice. An hour later I realized I had put it in the bike's bottle holder while I had the bike out.

This is normal. Everyone makes mistakes all the time. I'm a programmer, and one of the things you notice is that no matter how skilled the person, and no matter how trivial the program, they'll write buggy code. Usually a mistake every few lines.

One of the points of the sequence is to try to notice your own mistakes and your own biases, so that you can triage against them. As opposed to digging your heels in and refusing to admit you've done anything wrong, which is a common alternate strategy. (I've also found meditation to help with some of this.)

comment by mr-hire · 2019-07-01T15:56:24.921Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This seems to be a counterpoint to Eliezer's old post Competent Elites [LW · GW], which posits that as you get to higher and higher levels, people do indeed get more and more competent.

comment by Davis_Kingsley · 2019-07-01T20:15:16.299Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, that post hasn't much matched up with my experience. It feels like a relic of an older era, before the curtain went up on just how crazy things really can be at the top.

comment by Dagon · 2019-07-01T20:23:29.764Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That's not contradictory. It's simply true that average and median competence get higher both over time for people (peaking in the 30s-50s depending on dimension of competence), and get higher as you look at more respected cohorts (Navy SEALs, CEOs, etc.). It's _ALSO_ true that when compared to naive expectations, ain't none of us worth a damn. It's simultaneously true that nobody is ACTUALLY competent, and that some groups are impressively less incompetent than others.

It's a question of how much of the Y axis you choose to look at. Pretty much all humans are in a very narrow band of capability when put on a gradient from free-floating hydrogen to a theoretical future galaxy-spanning AI. On that absolute scale, even comparing Iain Banks' Ship minds to flatworms is only a minor gap. On the RELATIVE scale of median modern human to elite (top decile, say) modern human, it seems like a nearly qualitative difference.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-07-01T21:25:45.289Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That doesn't seem to be what Eliezer was implying though.

comment by Dagon · 2019-07-01T22:47:52.849Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. I read it as "understand that there are people significantly more competent than others". What have I missed? In his closing, he writes:

But I'm pretty sure that, statistically speaking, there's a lot more cream at the top than most people seem willing to admit in writing.

He didn't talk about the other part of my comment (that humans are a very small range of competency spectrum and NO human is very smart compared to imaginary perfect minds). That idea was the taken from the current post, which I tried to show was NOT a counterpoint, but just a compatible observation.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-07-02T01:09:42.905Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think you're right. I had a memory of the post where Eliezer was trying to say something like "We're all in good hands," but after rereading I don't see that as much.

comment by dxu · 2019-06-30T21:31:13.704Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This seems potentially related to the more general idea of civilizational inadequacy/Moloch.

comment by peleion · 2019-07-01T17:10:36.209Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Great writeup - I've felt this way nearly my whole life. I have a different take on this - not sure if it was intended and no one else has brought it up: imposter syndrome is almost universal among intelligent and high-performing people who are not sociopaths or narcissists. Perhaps this internal drive helps these people continue improving and avoid becoming complacent.

That incompetent people who present well inevitably manage to find their way into organizations (and sometimes advance to a high level) is also common - I know doctors I wouldn't trust with a stuffed animal and airline pilots who shouldn't be allowed to drive - I'm sure everyone can give similar examples - but I think these are the minority outside of professions where mediocrity is the baseline.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-07-02T07:40:45.404Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW
imposter syndrome is almost universal among intelligent and high-performing people who are not sociopaths or narcissists

What kind of evidence do you have for that claim?

comment by Viliam · 2019-07-01T19:46:29.472Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

An intelligent and self-reflecting person will realize that luck plays an important role in their success. It's just, if they do not expect this to be the general rule, they will feel guilty about luck playing a role in their success.

If luck does not play a role in your success, it means you remain completely within your comfort zone, and you could on average profit by doing something more difficult, where let's say your chances to succeed are only 80%, but the potential profit is double. As a side effect, this will also provide an opportunity to learn more.

(So I am talking about two things here: The fact that the more difficult job allowed you to learn more, that is a result of your good strategy. But the fact that had enough time in the more difficult job to learn more, before a problem happened you would be unable to solve, that part was luck. "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger", but first you need the luck to avoid getting killed.)

comment by jmh · 2019-07-01T12:26:31.462Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sounds like the margins of life are ruled by the Peter Principle.

comment by TAG · 2019-07-02T12:38:56.519Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Incompetent compared to what? Let's say that a lot of people are incompetent at their jobs. You can solve that by making jobs easier, so that anyone can do them but that isn't a nett benefit because now the difficult jobs aren't being done at all. Even though some people could do them. Meaning their talents would be wasted.

So maybe the system compromises between doing difficult things and doing things competently. Maybe that's an overall optimisation.

comment by johnswentworth · 2019-06-30T23:02:56.650Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This seems related to that experiment where iterative testing-and-tweaking results in high performance, without the people involved actually understanding how the system works at all.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-07-01T14:36:07.733Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have met wonderfully competent people. They usually work for averagely incompetent organisations, and what they do is, I think, satisfy the requirements of their managers and bring value to the world - they are just very good at compartmentilizing.

comment by TAG · 2019-07-02T12:39:50.245Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's easy to be competent at easy things.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-07-02T15:49:04.011Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I... find that I have worked within a rather narrow range of "things' complexity", and don't know what occurs outside of it.

The people I were thinking about were: a professor of genetics; a professor of zoology; an inspector of environment protection service; a museum guide; the manager of my bookshop; a leader of NGO for nature conservation (the man specializes in GIS); a highschool biology teacher; an ornithologist (specializes in waterfowl colonies).

I also excluded a family of zookeepers which specializes in wild fowl rehab (mostly) because they work outside "the system" and so don't have to conform so much. I excluded my former Head of Department because, frankly, he excels in research but is not too great at not scaring other people (= doesn't conform within "the system"). I excluded a great chemistry teacher who works with advanced students because he joined our current education reform (writes documents for it) and in this way tries to change "the system". Because I think these people fail at some meta-level. I don't mean that they should change or "just stop", but I would call them martyrs before I call them competent.