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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Character Trait of Competence

Getting good at something isn’t just fun. It’s an act of virtue.

Image Credit: iStock

When most people think of character, there is a list of attributes or “traits” that comes readily to mind. Some of the more common ones might be honesty, responsibility, patience, perseverance, loyalty, and courage. These are lofty attributes indeed, and it’s a shame that they seem to get little more than lip service from many people.

But while these and many others are justly celebrated, there is one character trait that deserves far more notoriety than it often gets, and that is the trait of competence.

Does competence even count as a character trait? I’d like to think it does. Certainly, it is something we admire about people. We look up to those who exhibit it, and we encourage our children to practice it. We also consider its opposite—incompetence—to be a negative quality in a person, something to be eschewed and overcome.

Consider the archetype of the wise old man, such as we find in Gandolf, Dumbledore, or Yoda. We certainly admire them for their perseverance, their loyalty to their friends, their diligence and such. But don’t we also admire them for their skill? A Gandolf who was equally loyal, sincere, and just, but who lacked competence, wouldn’t be much of a Gandolf. A Dumbledore who didn’t discover the twelve uses of dragon blood wouldn’t be much of a Dumbledore. And a Yoda who wasn’t a Jedi Master would be—well, not Yoda.

If you think about it, it seems as though virtue is not just about loyalty and honesty and kindness. A truly upstanding person is one who has also developed mastery, one who demonstrates ability, greatness, and excellence.

In short, part of being a good person is learning to become a competent person.

Ayn Rand was one who clearly recognized competence as a virtue. When introducing Mike Donnigan in her novel The Fountainhead, she lets her passion for this trait shine.

People meant very little to Mike, but their performance a great deal. He worshiped expertness of any kind. He loved his work passionately and had no tolerance for anything save for other single-track devotions. He was a master in his own field and he felt no sympathy except for mastery. His view of the world was simple: there were the able and there were the incompetent.

Part of why this trait is so important to emphasize is that it seems to be in such short supply these days. Not only that, but the general appreciation for competence also seems to be at all-time lows. Painting yourself as a victim in some culture war will get you a front-page story in the student newspaper. Meanwhile, actually being awesome at something—making a breakthrough in your field or designing an engineering marvel—might get you a brief mention on page 5. But it’s hardly the fault of the publishers. They are just providing the consumers with what they want. And the fact is people would rather get talking points for their latest grievance than take a moment to appreciate a solid demonstration of excellence.

H. L. Mencken is another who has pointed out the centrality of this trait.

Of all the human qualities, the one I admire the most is competence. A tailor who is really able to cut and fit a coat seems to me an admirable man, and by the same token a university professor who knows little or nothing of the thing he presumes to teach seems to me to be a fraud and a rascal.

As he wrote elsewhere with his classic wit, “The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology.”

Now, the thing about competence is that it won’t just happen to you. You must actively seek it out. Simply making your way through life will not do. You must take initiative. You must find something to get good at and practice—a lot.

So, you want to be a good person? You want to become virtuous? Then start getting good at things. Go learn something new. Read books that challenge you. Develop knowledge and skill at a very high level across multiple domains. You will be a better person, and have a better life, for it. And you will experience a thrill that is simply out of reach for all but the genuine masters among us.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.