Competence Compels Action

The Bulls were down one point with 10 seconds left against the Utah Jazz in game 6 of the NBA finals. Michael Jordan drove right against defender Byron Russell. As he approached the foul line, he abruptly stopped, pushed Russell away with his left hand, and crossed the ball back to his left. He rose up, and calmly swished a jumpshot to give the Bulls the lead and ultimately the series-winning victory. It remains his most famous shot, and exemplifies his mastery of the game.

Basketball was life for Jordan. What started out as a desire to be great turned him into the best basketball player in the world, and the most recognized sports figure in the world.

Wouldn’t it be fun to master something to that level? It’s no wonder he was obsessed with the game and spent so many hours in the gym!

As we move down the basketball food chain, lesser NBA players and college players are still supremely talented. And further down, there’s me, a player who could be described as “YMCA All-Star” level. Even at my level, I love to play basketball. In my teens, I would play up to six hours at a time.

Generally speaking, the more skilled the player, the more dedicated they are to the game. But here’s the thing—that relationship is assumed to be unidirectional. In other words, people think that dedication to the game leads to improved skills. That is obviously true, but it flows the other way as well! The more skilled the player, the more compelled they will be to maintain and improve their skills.

Nobody is Born Competent

Before Michael Jordan wowed us with spectacular skill and athleticism, he couldn’t walk. This isn’t a secret, as no humans are born walkers. We must learn and practice until it becomes easy. Lesson: Competence begins very humbly, so there’s no need to feel bad

If competence compels action, then it stands to say that a lack of competence is a barrier to action. (One of several reasons why I’ve never done ballet.)

There are two key points that will tell us something important when combined.

  • Competence compels action, and incompetence repels it
  • Everyone is grossly incompetent in new areas (generally speaking… there are rare exceptions)

Competence = Natural Talent x Practice

Like practically everyone else, I was never going to be the basketball player that Jordan was. He possessed incredible work ethic and physical traits that translated perfectly to the game. 

Michael Jordan = Elite Natural Ability x Elite Practice = Elite Player

We can only control half of that equation (practice). Here are my thoughts.

For the best results, put your time and energy into areas of natural talent. On a scale from 1-10, if your natural talent is a 4 and you practice is a 10, you’ll be a 40. If your natural talent is an 8 and your practice is a 10, you’ll get double the results for the same amount of work.

Counter argument: personal interest matters more than natural talent. Results are nice, but are they really the objective? Life is not a checklist or competition, it’s a journey and an experience.

Outliers like Jordan (10/10 natural talent in basketball) are, well, outliers. Most of us are closer to the middle in terms of natural talent. But it’s more important to pursue something interesting and fulfilling than simply to “exploit” your best natural talent. Often, the two will align (Jordan), but not always.

Personal example: I was a math whiz in school. I always got 99th percentile in my SATs in math. If I had pursued it, I probably could have been a better mathematician than writer. But I find that idea somewhat distasteful and boring, because it lacks the wild creative potential of writing. 

So while my natural talent for math was likely higher than my talent for writing (something I still recognize after more than a decade of writing practice), I just love to write, and I have gotten better at it.

Competence doesn’t have to be elite. We all start out as grossly incompetent in new areas simply from lack of experience. We may also be incompetent from poor experiences (this is common with exercise).

Depending on the field or hobby, a respectable amount of competence can be gained shortly, and that can fuel further practice and competence. This is why I write about habits so much. Habits fuel competence.

Whatever it is that you want to do more of, make a point to become more competent at it. The title of this post is that competence fuels action, so if you want to make things easier on yourself, get competent in the most important areas.

This is distinct from practice. It’s researched, smarter practice specifically purposed to increase your competence.

Before cooking, take a cooking class or read a book that teaches you core cooking concepts.

Before writing, read books about writing (I liked On Writing Well by Zinsser for writing fundamentals and On Writing by Stephen King for fiction/creativity). Write specifically to practice new techniques. If you only write based on your current knowledge, you are hardwiring some flawed techniques into your brain. I think all writers are guilty of it to some extent, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before shooting hoops, research the mechanics of the ideal shot first. This one is somewhat debatable, actually, because with enough practice, you can make non-traditional shooting form effective. But there are still some fundamental concepts such as shooting in such a way to limit left/right motion of the ball, and squaring your feet to align the shot.

Before cleaning your house, research methods to make the experience more enjoyable and your processes more effective. I haven’t read it, but I believe this is why The Magic of Tidying Up has been such a hit. And of course my habit books help take the overwhelm out of cleaning a big mess.


I always played basketball casually as a kid. As I developed a consistent 3-point shot and got the nickname “automatic” at the YMCA, my interest in playing surged. It might have even been an addiction if that’s possible for sports.

I never really researched how to play basketball. I only went to a couple of basketball camps. My experience was simply putting up thousands of shots over the years. I brute forced my way into competence.

Some of my peers who developed greater basketball competence did things like dribbling drills. That’s an important lesson in my eyes. You can usually develop competence in an area just by practicing it repeatedly and learning through trial and error. You will become more competent more quickly if your approach is researched and purposeful.

But who’s to say that one way is better than the other? As long as you enjoy the experience of learning and growing, I say you’re doing a fine job. If you want to increase your competence to make something more compelling, consider if you you just need to get in the reps or if you need to spend more time researching optimal practices.

[optinly-campaign id="13fb3534-424e-48c8-9447-b499b47c79bc"]