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The Stuff of Motivation Part IV – Competence

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a 5-part series on human motivation. Visit Part I for an introduction to this scintillating series. 


Northeastern Pennsylvania. Late 1990’s. In a bedroom on the second floor of an oversized house on an otherwise quiet street, I grimaced and swore in vain after my thousandth attempt at positioning my feeble hand in the position of the wretched open F chord. Guided by my patient father, I was “learning” how to play guitar. Despite this discouraging start, after a couple of months of painful practice, I began holding my own, sometimes even “hummin’ and strummin’”, as they say.

Just was we explored earlier in how to learn a new craft, my initial attempts at making intelligible “music” were for naught. Yet my desire to accomplish this sanctioned skill propelled me to a sense of satisfaction with my progress, to a feeling of earned competence.

Competence is an inexorable feeling of capability and effectiveness in our actions. Just like autonomy and relatedness, it is a universal and basic psychological need we all share. Also like the other psychological needs, it’s fostered in environments that support our exploratory acquisition of skill and self-efficacy.

It seems natural to want to equate competence with achievement, but they differ in orientation – whereas achievement is a motive, competence is a need. Achieving something, like winning a chess match, is almost always helped by a good amount of competence. But feeling competent doesn’t have to involve achievement.  We can feel competent in a social situation, yet most of us don’t necessarily feel a need to “achieve” anything (unless, of course, we’re trying to win an argument or are running for elected office).

Developing competence motivates us to continue making and doing. Once I felt sufficiently competent to play guitar, I wanted to play all the time. As I noted earlier, upon feeling reasonably assured that I could play that dastardly F chord, I sought out all of the F chord-featured songs in the universe (to the chagrin of parents and neighbors). By this point, I was feeling capable and effective, I was feeling competent.

Competence is critical to our achieving the vitalizing cognitive state of flow. Flow is a psychological construct proposed by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  While in the blissful state of flow, time is perceived differently – sometimes it seems to stand still, while other times it flies by. When in flow, we have clear goals every step of the way – the musician knows just which note to strike next; the athlete knows how and where to pivot; the writer senses which word or phrase rings true.  While achieving flow, our actions and awareness are merged – we’re completely focused on the task at hand; our concern about failure fades away; and we suspend self-consciousness. Csikszentmihalyi and dozens of others in the field of positive psychology contend that flow is an optimal state of mind.

When thinking about competence, the way to achieve the auspicious state of flow is to match, as closely as possible, our level of skill (competence) to perform a task with the task’s level of difficulty. When I started playing guitar, I oh so wanted to learn many of the complex songs of the late, Frank Zappa. With my deficient guitar playing skills and Zappa’s challenging song structures, failure and anxiety were a given. Thankfully, I quickly discovered the relative simplicity of 60’s pop songs, and my playing began flowing like a river.

When in the flow of writing, making, interacting, etc., our behavior takes on an autotelic quality – it becomes intrinsically motivating. Of course, it’s hard to imagine a person, no matter how competent, achieving flow if her behavior isn’t self-directed. It’s probably obvious that competence is only possible when we make our own decisions, when our autonomy is supported.  It also follows that if we can advance our competence with a craft in the company of friends, our sense of relatedness elevates our competent engagement with the craft even further.

Just as my friend Dave told me as we carved wooden implements together at a local watering hole, “normally I do this alone, in solitude, but today I feel like I’m just having some good conversation.” And so it was: our autonomous decision to partake in competent wood carving presented an invaluable occasion for craft-laden relatedness

Visit me next week if you’re interested in witnessing how this series ends. Until then, stay competent!

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