For intro graphic design, we’re supposed to design a logo and then bring both an eight-and-a-half by-eleven version and a reduced version to class to hang up for critiques. Late Monday night, two of us were in the classroom, finishing up our work for the next morning. After gluing on my text, I walked into the computer lab to make a reduced version of the final logo.

SydneyC“I’ll just do mine tomorrow,” said the voice behind me as I walked out. “Why?” I asked, “It takes two seconds.” He gave me a weird look. It became clear that he’d been scanning, photoshopping and printing his logo to make the small version rather than allowing the photocopier to do all of this work for him. He was a brilliant designer but an incompetent office worker.

Once, during an internship in high school, I photocopied my boss’ collection of family photo albums and family trees found in her parents’ attic. I became intimately acquainted with her great, great, great grandparents as well as the nuances, quirks and partialities of the color copier — a familiarity I still possess today. Proudly, I showed my classmate how to click reduce, to select 25 percent, to make sure that the copier was set to full color. I could tell he was impressed. “Competency. It’s my word of the week,” I told him. Oh, the foresight of that Monday night prediction.

Competency used to mean just adequate. Gets the job done. On those rubrics where you choose among five words that climb to “outstanding,” competent definitely hangs out on the left side of the sheet of paper. But in my life, the perception of competent falls way short of its value. Talent cooks a meal requiring hours of preparation that could be served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Competent makes something edible with whatever’s left in the fridge.

Recently, I’ve noticed other people have also begun attributing new value to competency. I’ve formed a great appreciation for the ability to simply do things very well, not necessarily the best, not necessarily above and beyond, but effectively — competently. Good enough is great.

My appreciation for competency deepened that same day editing papers for a science course with another friend. While he graciously accepted my word choice edits and mild suggestions for restructuring, his mastery of the concepts and ability to point out and explain the shortcomings in my chemical and biological analysis exceeded expectations, to again borrow the terms of a rubric. Yet, when relating the experience to my roommate, I remarked, “he is so competent.” Meaning not just that he was able to edit the essay, but that he was
a very, very good editor.

More and more, I’ve heard competency used as a term of approval. Sometimes the description is laced with envy, as in, “Ugh. She’s just so competent.” A person whose checklist has most things checked off. It emphasizes not the quality of the things this person does, but her sheer ability to do them. I’ve also heard it used as a requirement, as in, “he’s looking for a competent intern to coordinate scheduling.” In other words, competency is shifting to the right on that imaginary grading rubric.

It’s not that competence is the new intelligence or the new talent. Competency, perhaps, is what’s lost, or what’s harder to see, when we dedicate our time and energy to developing exceptional, specialized skills and ways of thinking. Without us really realizing competency faded into the background as we rushed to develop esoteric specialties. But perhaps because of this scarcity, competency is having a moment of resurgence. Basic, useful abilities are back in demand.

On a walk the other day, I explained to my fellow fall-foliage-follower (there are too many anonymous friends in this story, this is my attempt to distinguish among them) that pepper spray can actually be distracting and confusing in situations where one is being attacked and in fact it’s better to simply defend yourself with your hands — “go for the eyes.” At first, I thought the violent imagery triggered the blank, puzzled stare.

But no. “I’m just not used to my friends telling me things that are useful,” he said. This is unfortunate. Useful competencies, like impressive abilities, should be shared. So please let me know if you need help with the photocopier.

Caroline Sydney is a junior in Silliman College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at caroline.sydney@yale.edu.