29 Animals In New York City Did This Last Year The Theory Of Learned Incompetence

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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 that I was not exempt for a 100 hour work week. I discovered that too much sun is just 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 damned all over the world (and that “Animal Style” is messy and delicious.)

But the most important thing I discovered was the Theory of Learned Disability.

You see, my last year in LA I had this boss named “Bob”. (Name changed because “Bob” was a pretty cool guy and I wasn’t going to make him feel bad.)

“Bob” was a gay, Jewish guy from New York who spent most of his workday surfing the net for pornography. Not to say that “Bob” wasn’t good at his job. He could fool around 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* make up his mind and get busy.

* Are you answering the phone? whoops

* Sending 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 brand new cell phone (he lost his last one on a trip to France)? Yeah, uhh. It won’t happen.

Now, what struck me about “Bob’s” complete kindergarten-like incompetence was that at some point—on the way to landing his nice, nice quarter-million-a-year gig, he *must* have learned how to do these things.

You see, in the entertainment industry, there’s a pretty strict ladder to climb. You start from the bottom as someone’s assistant. You spend the heck of 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 go upstairs, get your assistant, spend the whole time talking on the phone and browsing porn – and so the circle of Hollywood life continues.

So once upon a time, “Bob” knew how to use a copy machine.

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 competent.

Until he learned that if he wanted to get ahead, he would have to *learn* to become *disabled.*

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 (fixing the copy machine. Getting coffee. Preventing wars.) you tend to stick with that one thing while all the less competent people around you get promoted.

So what do ambitious people like “Bob” do?

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

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

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

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

Only this. In my daily life I encounter many young entrepreneurs and business owners – refugees from the corporate lifestyle – who have not fully awakened to the fact that while the theory of learned disability will help you get ahead in corporate America , it’s absolutely deadly when you’re alone outside.

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 that big, fat company will take care of you.

But in the real world, if you decide to forget to work with the copier, the copies don’t get made.

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

And if you decide to become incompetent at marketing…well, pretty soon you have no business at all.

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