Helane Fronek: What's Your Definition of Competence?

We medical professionals carry large and awesome responsibilities on our shoulders. I often remember when my sister, a Senior VP of a large retail company, said, “Helane, if I make a mistake, we might lose a few million dollars. But if you make a mistake, someone can die!” This awareness is one of the reasons why many people in our profession doubt their competence and may even feel like a fake at certain times in their careers. Another reason is that many of us have unrealistic ideas of what competence means.

Some people believe that competence implies perfection. If we make any mistake, we judge ourselves incompetent. As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, explains, “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.” Instead of perfection, Valerie Young, author of Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, suggests that we consider GEQ, or “Good Enough Quality.” A client once shared her anxiety when she had to cover another physician’s clinic. Each day, she expected herself to see 30 to 40 patients she had never met, establish rapport, figure out what was wrong with them, decide what to do to evaluate or treat them, explain the plan and motivate the person to follow it – all in 10 minutes! After a short discussion, she decided that the most important task was to make a diagnosis. With that reasonable goal, she had a more upbeat approach to her day and came away feeling accomplished and successful.

Others feel that competence implies a natural ability to grasp ideas and perform skills – as if any sort of effort negates the sense of competence. Yet another misguided idea is that we must know everything in order to feel competent; if someone adds an idea or quotes a paper we haven’t read, we immediately feel “discovered” as an impostor. I don’t know anyone who naturally knows everything, especially in a rapidly changing field like medicine. If we instead focus on what we are learning and how we are improving, we can feel good about our growing competence. If someone adds a piece of information, we can appreciate that and ask ourselves how it changes our understanding of the issue, rather than feeling bad that we didn’t already know.

And then there are those who believe that any achievement worth recognizing must be a solo effort. None of us can achieve all of our goals alone! Instead, competence really means knowing how to identify and enlist the resources to get a job done. By asking for help or guidance, we often accomplish more with less stress and greater enjoyment.

What’s your definition of competence? Take a look at your own beliefs. By applying some of the ideas above, see if you can gain a more accurate and helpful view of your own competence. When we own our abilities, we naturally feel more confident to dream bigger and accomplish more— and that makes us feel even more competent