How to be competent?

Submitted by chaky on Thu, 10/21/2021 - 20:32

"We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle


First off, why we need to be competent?  Well, competence is the core engine that drives us to our goal - whatever it be - to be rich, to be a good father/mother, to innovate, etc.  So competence is really important in both work and our life.

You probably already know all the obvious things - read books, read papers, talk to smart people, work hard, think about your future, etc.  All these are essential things to get you competent.  But this post is to talk about the less obvious things, i.e., habits - the thing you do repeatedly - the source of competence.

If you want to be competent, start taking care of the little things around you, because these little things or routine will build up your habit, and they will be your foundation.  Have you ever wonder why one guy is so disciplined and careful in his research, while I have such a hard time doing it?  Have you ever wonder why a researcher can be so persistent and work so hard that he finally got his great results, while others give up easily?  Why can a researcher be so logical why others struggle?

Well, these "superman" traits all build up from the little things you do every day.  If your general discipline is inadequate (e.g., your time), it is almost impossible to be disciplined and careful when you do specific things, i.e., research.  How can a guy be so persistent?  Well, he trained himself through very small victories throughout his life which build up his persistence.  How can a guy be so logical?  Well, he trained himself to repeatedly ask "stupid" questions on whatever he sees, reads, encounters, which slowly build up his logic.  This list can go on and on. Habit is one most amazing example of the butterfly effect.  Habit effect compounds.  Just like this iceberg, you only see the tip of the iceberg, but in reality, ones' achievements are built upon a very strong foundation and training over years.

I also would like to link this with a famous question I got from students - Should I go to school if the school teaches me something that "I do not use"?  or Should I learn math if the computer can do it for me?  Yes and No.  Yes, if you think you will rely on computers to solve every problem.  And no, because school is NOT only about teaching "skills", in fact, that is not the purpose of education.   Education is about the foundation. A school is actually a platform for training you fundamental habits, being logical, being persistent, being disciplined, being diligent, being good team players, how to approach a problem, exploring your interests, all these will build up your future.  Just like kung fu, people think it is about training the body, but in fact, the essence of kung fu is training the strength of ones' mind. 

This foundation cannot be trained overnight.  The attitude of "it's fine when I do research, I do very seriously" will not work - you will feel very uncomfortable doing it and eventually you will stop doing it after a few weeks or months.  

A bit harsh?  Yes and sometimes it seems not worth it to be competent.  But the results are incredibly satisfying.