The Experience of Competence

In a recent piece, I described myself as an AHOG—an amazing, high-performance old guy.   At first glance, that looks like a substantial and probably incredible claim.  It is not.  I justified “amazing” on the grounds that I was, in fact, amazed.  Surely, I reasoned, if it amazed me, then it was amazing.  I justified “high-performance” by rigging the base line so low that the performance in question was “high” by comparison.

Now I’m back and I want to talk about the piece of being an AHOG that raises the question of attention.

When we talk about “the experience of competence,” as many writers do, we focus on the “competence” part.  I want to focus on the “experience” part.  There is no necessary relationship between the fact of competent performance and the experience I have of my own competent performance.  They are related, of course, but they are different things.  Mihaly Czikszentmihaly wrote in his book Flow, that when you are in a “flow state” you can do the best work of your life for hours at a time and have no awareness of it at all.

I’ve had that happen to me—I almost said I had “had that experience”—and I know how good I felt about it.  But I didn’t experience it while it was happening.  I looked back with gratitude and appreciation on what must have happened during that time.  The work I held in my hand or saved in my document file was some of the best I have ever done and it must have taken quite a few hours because it’s now late afternoon and I am really hungry but of the time itself—nothing.


This chart is just for fun.  I built literally hundreds of these in grad school while I was trying to find out what I was saying and what the alternatives were and then hundreds more while I was teaching and trying to help students find out what I was saying.  A number of those students read this blog and they will remember that it is true and smile to themselves.  A few of them may email me just to rag me about it.  But this table is entirely unnecessary and I just put it in for fun.  Cell A, or the relationship between Cell A and Cell B is the subject of today’s inquiry.

So the question is, “What calls my mind to an experience so that I become aware of it at all?”  And the answer is: failure.  Here are a few examples that should establish the relationship.    If your ankle hurts most mornings when you swing your legs out of bed and put your feet on the floor, you will notice the mornings when it does not.  “Wow!” you say, “I’m feeling really good today.”  That means that the disability (the painful ankle) comes to your mind—that’s the experience part—and you notice that you are able to do whatever you want with that ankle that day.  If you are usually very anxious about walking into a room of strangers, knowing that you will have to “make conversation,”[1] and today when you walk in, you feel confident and eager to engage, you experience your competence.  Notice the role frequent failure plays.  It calls your attention to the event; it asks you to experience whatever is about to happen—to place whatever is about to happen in one of the mental categories that falls in the “competence” folder.

Here’s a personal one.  My left knee is…um…unpredictable.  I call it crickey; it’s a technicalAHOG 4 term.  By the time I am out of the shower, I have a good idea whether it will round into shape that day and whether I can go for a run on it—soft surfaces only.  When the knee is “promising,” it raises my spirits and when I am able to run without being perpetually wary, it raises everything except my blood pressure.  Woohoo!  An experience of competence.

And, moving ahead to the conclusion of the case, I experience a life I know how to live.  When I lecture, I blank on words—I wish I didn’t, but I do—and I engage the audience in helping me remember what the word is and then I go on.  They like that.  I don’t really mind it.  I feel that overcoming that obstacle is something I know how to do and the practice of overcoming it gives me a sense of satisfaction.  That sense of satisfaction is something I never had before I started to blank on words.  The “experience” never registered.  And I wouldn’t have that satisfaction, either, if I tried and failed to retrieve the word or if I couldn’t remember just why I needed it.  Or why I am standing up in a room where people are writing things in notebooks.

There is a way of walking that seems to stress my left knee less when I remember to do it.  So if I am walking along and get that crickey feeling and start to walk with my left foot toed in a little and the pressure on the inside of the ball of my left foot and the crickiness goes away, I say, “Woohoo!”  An experience of competence.  Needless to say, I never had that experience before I began having trouble with my knee.

AHOG 3My body is like an old car.  There are so many things wrong with it that I am really the only one who knows how to drive it.  “No, no—you bang on the door before you put on the turn signal.  It doesn’t work otherwise.  No, no—you have to start the car and then turn it off and then start it again.  It works really fine if you remember to do that.”  You get the idea.

So my experience of myself as an Amazing High-performance Old Guy is built on the foundation of successes that relate to conditions where I have experienced failures (like the ankle) or to obstacles that I have learned to overcome.  No failure, no attention.  No attention, no “experience” of success.

AHOGS unite, you have nothing to lose but…but…what is it we have nothing to lose but?

[1] At my church, smalltalk after the morning service is called “fellowship.”  I don’t know why.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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