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  • Writer's pictureDavid Gaudet

The Problem With Competencies


If you've read any of the previous posts, listened to any of the podcasts, or picked up a copy of the book, you may find this post somewhat redundant, but read it anyway. It's an important core mentality message.


What follows is an excerpt from my book, "The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human", in which I both, admit the shortcomings of the word "competencies", while also extol its virtues...

OK, I’ll be the first to admit, as a marketing educator and branding nerd, there is an inherent problem with words like “competent” and “competency” in their ability to stir up much excitement as the theme of a book, much less bear the burden of branding a movement. Truth is, Marc Boivin, CBL researcher and speaker, and I have had many a tussle with the nomenclature of this beyond its rightful place as educational methodology. With The Daily Undoing, I was going to attempt to bring this to the mainstream. But of all the heights to which one can aspire, why in the world would they aspire to be “merely” competent? The word, frankly, reeks of mediocrity. “Steve’s a competent plumber.” Not exactly eye-grabbing words to paint on the side of a service van.


And so we spent weeks attempting to come up with a shiny, new term. One that, like an awesome brand name, would act like an instant super-charged attention magnet. The problem was that none of those words captured the essence of competency in the context of learning – which is ultimately what The Daily Undoing is supposed to be about, and precisely why the word is essential in the label, competency-based learning. It is a mindset for learning, which in turn becomes a foundation for personal growth. In the many talks Marc and I have given at conferences across North America, words like “mastery” and “credentials” are often floated around as though there should be some end goal in this abstract pursuit of competency. But the truth is, there is no end goal. Like our capacity for pure thought, there is no limit, no maximum, no mastery, only, if one is willing to embrace it, a lifelong pursuit of mastery.


Besides the potential limitations of competency from a branding perspective, the next challenge with the word is the natural synonymous association so often made between competency, and one of its component parts – skill. Decades ago, the distinction was made between technical skills (ranging from STEM subjects to trades) and soft skills – also known as interpersonal skills. While I still cringe at the vernacular of “soft” and “skills” fused together, the intention was always to distinguish a set of skills which were largely intangible, but equally essential in careers and life. Either way, however, “skill” also has limitation in its meaning. It is possible, for instance, to be skilled at something, without being fully knowledgeable about it. Conversely, it is possible to be knowledgeable without being skilled. As Marc often opines, “We don’t give out driver’s licenses based upon written exams.”


Thus, competency-based learning attempts to reconcile the deficiencies of both skill and knowledge by making them part of a learning system, along with one other essential ingredient – attitude. That is, conscious openness and willingness to learn must be omnipresent in order for us to continue becoming more competent. As you’ll read throughout the book, and hear often in the podcast, The Daily Undoing frequently mirrors the entrepreneurial mindset – an attitude willing to learn; to fail; to make sacrifices; to challenge and, to always ask.

What makes competencies compelling for educators like me and Marc is that there is an assumption that learning involves more than just information transfer. Competency-based learning is both a framework and mindset that sets those who embrace it on a lifelong journey of learning to learn. We may think we know it all, have learned it all, and can do it all, but our capacity to learn is infinite. As Albert Einstein quipped, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know.” There may be no greater endorsement for a competency-based approach to learning, and to life, than this single, solitary thought.


The fact that you hold this book in your hands, and have read it to this point is a strong suggestion that you possess the attitude required for this journey. What this book attempts to do is make you more aware of the vast stores of knowledge and wisdom you possess, across eight different competency categories, and suggest multiple skills to perform consciously, regularly, and willingly, in your journey toward being better at being human. So, there really is no problem with the words competency or competent. There is only a problem with the general assumption that we are forever and fully competent in the areas emphasized in this book. That we can conjure these competencies on-demand, assuming high performance without practice. The Daily Undoing seeks to help solve this problem.

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