In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about your level of incompetence.

Sometimes, situations arise when you are unable to handle a situation properly. This could be because you don’t have the skill sets to handle that situation or you’re unable to figure out how to handle said situation.

In today’s episode, Steli and Hiten share their thoughts on what being incompetent means, why it’s important to figure out what’s causing you to be incompetent at managing a situation, how to deal with situations you feel incompetent about and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic.

00:29 Why this topic was chosen.

02:53 The definition of incompetence.

03:30 How you can be incompetent at one thing but competent at other things.

04:30 Why it’s important to figure out what to do when feeling incompetent at something.

06:00 An example of what incompetence can lead to.

07:31 How to deal with situations you feel incompetent about.

08:31 How not knowing how to manage people is a huge level of incompetence.

09:06 Sometimes, what’s causing you to be incompetent at something is not so obvious.

09:32 How to get better at realizing hidden incompetencies.

3 Key Points:

  • I’m not incompetent at reading code, I’m incompetent at writing code
  • A lot of us have strategies of what to do when we hit that level of incompetence.
  • The key is to figure out what’s causing you to be incompetent



Steli Efti: Hey everybody. This is Steli Efti.



Hiten Shah: And, this is Hiten Shah.



Steli Efti: On today’s episode of The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about your level of incompetence. Here’s why I want to talk about this. The framing of this is really what I want to talk about, which I thought was super interesting. Just recently, I was in a conversation about getting COs on the phone, cold calling, selling to really kind of high-end demand professionals and how difficult that is. One person said something that stood out to me, which was that when you talk to, when you reach … He was saying the people that he’s trying to reach and sell to, he usually does not have a hard time once he gets them on the phone to get their attention and to get time from them. Because he was like, the people that he’s talking to, they’re operating at a level of competence where they have time. He’s like, “If I ever talk to somebody that doesn’t have a few minutes to talk because they’re so quote unquote busy, to me that just means they’re now operating at a level of incompetence that creates busyness for them. Right? That creates stress busyness.” That framing was really interesting. That’s something that I wanted to talk to you a little bit about, which is the idea that whenever things are getting overwhelming, whenever things are getting incredibly stressful, whenever you are quote unquote busy. “I’m so busy right now” or “Things are so busy, I’m so under pressure, have so much stress, there’s so much overwhelming, there’s just too many projects, too much stuff going on.” When things become really, really difficult and friction-full, maybe you just now hit a level of your incompetence. Now you’re operating at a level that’s much higher than what your competence level is, so things are not quite simple and easy for you to do. Now things are overwhelming, difficult, stressful for you to do. Thinking about stressful and busy times as times where you hit a level of incompetence was a way of thinking about it or framing it, especially the incompetence part that I was thought was interesting. I don’t know quite what it is, but there’s something in that topic. There was something in that framing, in that word, that made me go, huh, I want to bring this up to Hiten and see if we can dissect this word and see where it leads us to.



Hiten Shah: Yeah, incompetence and hitting a point of incompetence is kind of really interesting. I just looked it up. It means inability to do something successfully. It’s pretty broad and kind of vague. Incompetence, I think another way to say that is, sometimes I would say, “Oh, that’s above my pay grade.” Just jokingly because it’s something I don’t want to deal with or something that I don’t know anything about. Or I would say, “That’s too deep for me. That’s like in the weeds.” So for example, if you try to get me to write a line of code, I’m sure this is the case for you, that would be too deep right? Like my incompetence would show up because I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d start writing words. So that’s a good extreme example. If either of us tried to write some code right now, we wouldn’t know what to do. Now, here’s the funny thing. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not incompetent at reading code. I’m incompetent at writing code. So, and that might sound super weird, but I think most code is logical. I might not know what is going on, but I can read it and manipulate it if I need to go [inaudible] copy on a page. You know? I just dig around the code and find a copy. So I think I’m compensating for my incompetence by just brute force, which is just like, figure it out regardless of knowing anything about it. And a lot of us have strategies of what to do when we feel like we hit that level of incompetence. So, I think the worthy part of this is when you hit that level like, I don’t know what to do. I’m unable to do anything. This is out of my depth or above my pay grade or it’s too deep for me. I think what’s important is what do you do when you feel like that? How do you get past that? That’s kind of important. I mean that’s the part that’s most interesting.



Steli Efti: I love that. There’s actually two parts. One is what you just said, which is yes, when you hit that, when you realize that, hey, I’m working on something or I’m involved in something or I’m responsible for something that I don’t have competence in, what is your response? What are your coping mechanisms? How do you deal? Do you run and hid away from it, and try to avoid it? Do you try to distract yourself from that fact? Do you try to overcompensate by pretending, just like, I know what I’m doing, this is all easy, I’m going to get this done. I don’t know if you watched the Fyre documentary on Hulu or Netflix? For those that might have not watched it, I highly recommend it. Have you watched it?



Hiten Shah: I have not, no.



Steli Efti: It is fairly entertaining, and there might be some lessons learned there for people. But that is a good-



Hiten Shah: I’m waiting for the blog post.



Steli Efti: Yeah, for the notes. Well I think that documentary is a crass and very entertaining and funny, but big example of somebody operating way above their competence and trying to compensate for that with pure confidence. And you can do that if the difference is fairly small, so when you stretch, you can reach that. But there’s obviously just being super confident that you’re going to win the Olympics when you’ve never run a day in your life or never competed a day in your life, is not going to be enough. Any confidence in the world, if you’ve never exercised a day in your life will not compensate for you just showing up at the Olympics tomorrow and thinking you would win. And that’s sort of the thing that happened there. They tried to do something that is incredibly hard, this massive event, and they had no competence whatsoever. And there were many, many signs all the way leading up to the event that it was going to be a catastrophe, and they didn’t have their shit together, and they couldn’t do it. And they would meet all these advisors and people that would tell them this is not going to happen, and they tried to basically positive think and confidence their way out of all of this until they had to start to actually use fraudulent tactics to maintain the façade. And at the end, inevitably, the whole card house fell apart, and it didn’t work out. So, I think what is your coping mechanism, right? Do you use over confidence? Do you fake things? Do you run away? Do you get sad and depressed? Like, what are your coping mechanisms when you are responsible for something. That’s one thing. The other thing that I find interesting about this, Hiten, is there are areas where you know … Like reading code for instance, that’s a great example. If somebody told me, “Well, there’s a bug in our product, and all our engineers are sick, and it needs to be fixed asap. Steli, here’s access to the code. Go and fix it.” Now that’s obviously a skillset I don’t possess. Now there’s maybe work around this coping mechanisms. I would think, well I can find a way to recreate the bug. I can find a way to document it. I could try to find people that know how to read code to help me. Like there’s things that I could do to try to fix this problem, but if I had to do it on my own, I would know in that moment, this is an area I have no competence in, so how am I going to do this? But there’s other times where we are involved in activities or tasks that we are competent in, but we just have, let’s say, the incompetence is just more hidden. I think that’s the interesting [inaudible] case that comes to my mind. Let’s say you’re doing a bunch of activities that you’re competent in doing, but all of a sudden because you hired, let’s say, a bunch of people, and now you’re doing all these activities. And now you have to also do it to them, and teach them how to do them, and you’re getting overwhelmed, and you don’t quite realize that you’ve hit a level of incompetence because all the things you do every single day, all the little things you explain to people, you have to critique or give feedback on. All that stuff is stuff that you feel competent in, but the incompetence is more hidden. The incompetence in this case is that you don’t know how to manage people, you don’t know how to onboard them, or don’t know how to delegate. And these things, how to delegate, is much more of a hidden incompetence than, I don’t know how to code. Or I don’t know how to play the piano. That’s a very obvious incompetence. If you sit me at a piano, it’s very obvious to me. But if you give me ten people to manage when I’ve never managed anybody, if I get overwhelmed in how to teach them what I do and how to do the things, that incompetence might not be as obvious to me. It might not be obvious that what’s creating stress and overwhelming and why things are so difficult is not the reading, the blog post or the telling somebody how to do something, it’s that I don’t know how to onboard, how to delegate, how to manage, that kind of thing. And realizing maybe hidden incompetencies is also an interesting thing that I think people … How do people get better at that? How do people get good at that? That’s an interesting, I think, other side of the coin.



Hiten Shah: Yeah, I mean, the key is to figure out what causes you to be incompetent. So if you don’t know how to delegate or you don’t know how to manage, and you’re new to it, simply what you have to do is realize that this is new to you and you don’t know how to do it. And then use whatever process is fastest or most effective for you, fastest and most effective to learn up, basically learn about that thing and get good at it. I mean, a lot of these topics that we feel out of our depth on, we don’t necessarily need to know how to do it before we start doing it, and we also don’t necessarily need to believe that we can’t learn it really fast. So I think there’s a combination of just knowing when you don’t know what you’re doing, and finding the right ways for yourself to admit it to yourself before someone else does because often times we wait for someone else to basically indicate it to us. Whether it’s the person we’re trying to manage, which usually can be harsh, like they quit. Or through incompetence, say you’re not doing a good job and it’s just clear to you or other people that you’re not doing a great job. So I think it’s a matter of awareness.



Steli Efti: I love it. Alright, coming back to self-awareness, which is a big topic on the Startup Chat. We have touched on that a number of times, but the episode that I will leave you with, that I will recommend everybody listen to, is episode number 45, Founder Self-awareness, and number 65, How to Become More Self-aware. Two of my favorite episodes. Self-awareness is really the key to almost everything we are ever talking about, Hiten, so we’ll leave all the listeners with those two episode recommendations. And we’ll see you very soon.



Hiten Shah: I think you saw that coming, am I right?



Steli Efti: I did.