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The Theory Of Learned Incompetence

Right out of college I spent two long, brutal years slaving away in the pits of the Los Angeles entertainment industry. I discovered a lot in my time in LA. I found out I wasn’t cut out for 100 hour work weeks. I discovered that too much sunshine is as bad as not enough (and that while rain doesn’t cause cancer, it does cause big, messy accidents on I-10.) I discovered that In ‘n Out Burger makes the best cheeseburger in the entire world (and this “Animal Style” is both messy and delicious.)

But the most important thing I discovered was my “Theory of Learned Helplessness”.

You see, my last year in LA I had this boss named “Bob”. (Name changed because “Bob” was a really nice guy and I’d rather not make him feel bad.)

“Bob” was a gay, Jewish guy from New York who spent most of his workday surfing the internet for porn. Not to say that “Bob” wasn’t good at his job. He could think and act like nobody’s business and taught me a lot about how to deal with people.

The problem was that “Bob” couldn’t do anything *but* kill and deal.

* Answering the PHONE; Uhh.

* Send a fax? Better if he didn’t try. After all toner is expensive.

* Answering an email, licking a stamp, or figuring out how to set up voicemail on his new cell phone (he lost his last one on a trip to France)? Yeah, uh. It’s not going to happen.

Now, what struck me about ‘Bob’s’ total kindergarten-like ineptitude was that at some point, on the way to landing that nice, neat quarter-million-a-year gig, he *must* have learned how to do these things.

You see, in the entertainment industry, there’s a pretty steep ladder to climb. You start at the bottom as someone’s assistant. You struggle for a few years getting coffee, doing stupid admin stuff and trying to prove you have ‘initiative’. And then, if you’re lucky and persistent, you move up, get your own assistant, spend all your time chatting on the phone and surfing porn – and so the circle of Hollywood life continues.

So once upon a time “Bob” knew how to use a copier.

Once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to put someone on hold, take another call, and then get back to the first person without accidentally calling the fire department.

Once upon a time, “Bob” was capable.

Until he learned that if he wanted to move forward, he would have to *learn* to become *incompetent.*

You see, in Hollywood (and, from what I’ve seen, all of corporate America) if you know how to do something well, you will inevitably be forced to do it again and again and again. In fact, if you’re really good at something (copier repair. Drinking coffee. Preventing wars.) you tend to stick with that one thing while all the less skilled people around you get promoted.

So what do ambitious people like ‘Bob’ do?

Consciously or not, they *learn to be incompetent.*

They pour all their energy into developing a few basic, useful, marketable skills and let everything else wither and atrophy until the people above them have no choice but to promote them.

“Bob keeps messing with the duplicator and we’re afraid if he keeps going near it it might explode,” they say. “We’d better get him out of there and give him that corner office.

Nice theory, but what does this have to do with marketing?

Only that. In my daily life I meet many young entrepreneurs and business owners—refugees from the corporate lifestyle—who haven’t quite woken up to the fact that while the theory of learned helplessness will help you get ahead in corporate America, it’s absolutely deadly when you’re out on your own. .

When you’re stuck in the “ivory tower” you can forget how to do all sorts of things, knowing full well that the infrastructure of this big, fat company will take care of you.

But in the real world, if you decide to forget how to work the copy machine, the copies don’t get made.

If you decide to forget how to answer the phone, no one is there to save you.

And if you decide to become inept at marketing… well, pretty soon you don’t have any kind of business.

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