“Work gravitates toward competence until failure”
It is a curious proverb reminding us that sometimes competence can lead to failure. How? Because in organizations and institutions, (the church included), “work gravitates toward competence until failure.” When there is more to be done who gets asked to do it? Do the incompetents get asked? Not usually. Its the competent people who usually get the extra work. Work piles up until the competent person simply has too much to do and they start slipping, forgetting things, cutting corners on excellence and finally they fail with a big belly-flopper and every says, That’s too bad—they were so promising.” Thus, the practical corollary of this proverb (if you are one of those competent people) is, “Only you can control the amount of work you accept.” If you don’t, your own competence may lead you to failure.
Perhaps this is why life seems so much easier for incompetents. (“Incompetent” professionally, that is.) Incompetents seldom burn out. They rarely get extra assignments. They go home early, take evenings off, and always seem to have extra time to pursue their interesting hobbies and leisure time activities of the balanced life. But a competent person can have this too—but only if they learn to say “no.”
So, are you an especially competent person? Do you seem to be a magnet for new assignments, new jobs, additional responsibilities, extra work? Then beware. You may be lining up for a big failure in the future. The very excellence with which you do things now may eventually be the benchmark against which your downfall will be measured. When you get spread thin enough you’ll start letting your usual quality slip. At first nobody will notice. Only you will know. Your reputation will carry you for a while. But eventually others will notice. You will be slipping. As you get spread thinner you’ll start compromising your preparation and sacrificing your quality. You won’t be as good as you used to be—simply because you are trying to do too much. You will become like the thorny soil—trying to grow too much. Then people will be disappointed and start talking about how promising you were, but how much you’ve slipped. Assignments will quit coming your way. They’ll start asking someone “more reliable.”
So, how can you avoid “Competence failure?” Learn to say no. You can’t count on the church, your senior pastor, your district, or your institution to control the amount of work coming your way. They’ll load you up straw-by-straw until the “final straw” breaks your back. Only you can guard against this overload. By learning to say no. Saying no to a good thing is hard. But it is the only way. Everyone should learn to say no of course, but competent people especially must learn it. Especially competent ministers. Better to disappoint people a little now, than disappoint them a lot later. “Only the camel knows how much straw he can carry.”
What have you learned in life about trying to do too much?
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.