I had recently received my yellow belt in Tang Soo Do. I was practicing some new moves in class yesterday with another newly minted yellow belt. We were still learning the moves, and periodically would mess up the drill. After one such slip-up, my classmate said “Sorry, that was stupid.” I said “No, that wasn’t stupid, that was incompetent.” She said “That’s not much better.” I responded “No, that’s much better. You’re not stupid at all, but there’s no shame in saying you’re incompetent. I’m incompetent too! If we were fully competent, we wouldn’t have to practice all of this.”

Many people have taken “you’re incompetent” to be an insult. Oftentimes, implicit in that statement is that “you’re incompetent at something you should be competent at, and your lack of competence is due to a failure on your part.” However, incompetence necessarily must come before mastery. I can confidently say that I am incompetent at legal research and writing because I have never done it before. Stating that I am incompetent is an objective assessment of my ability; it has nothing to do with my worth or future ability.

Incompetence is not a problem. Staying there is a problem.

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