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Competence Porn

Originally Published in British Airways Business Life magazine in September 2019

I’m moving house right now, and so my thoughts have turned to porn. Now, now. Wait a second. Not the regular kind, or even the location-location-location sort that comes with getting onto the mailing lists of real estate agents in the new city a few thousand miles away from the old. Instead, it’s Competence Porn. Because while I type this, all of our worldly possessions are being wrapped and packed by three very nice Angelenos who are good, but not nearly as good as the Japanese moving company employees I am watching on YouTube to keep myself from interfering with their work.

Competence Porn is the genre of footage found all over YouTube that shows people being low-key awesome at something. Exhibiting skills so profound that they elevate seemingly regular jobs, or even commonplace daily activities, to levels of artistry you’ve never imagined, all while giving an air of being entirely unstressed by the effort. It is profoundly calming. Renaissance-era Italians had a word for this: sprezzatura, and the Japanese moving firms videos are my go-to dose when things are getting too much in real life. Watching them bow before they enter a house, removing their shoes, lining the walls and falls with scuff-protecting panels, then individually wrapping everything in custom-made boxes perfectly shaped for the items at hand, and packing every cupboard into boxes designed so that they can be unpacked into similar cupboards at the destination address with everything in the same exact place, well, it is so profoundly good, so profoundly pleasing, so profoundly moving in its competence that it puts the world back on its axis. Nothing can be truly hopeless when such people exist.

It’s not just movers that can claim full Competence Porn status. There are videos from a Chicago-based art restoration company, Baumgartner Restoration, that are the CP equivalent of mainlining heroin. There are whole sections of YouTube dedicated to professional car-detailers that will sooth your soul. Sugarcraft, metal tool restoration, even the guys who unblock drains for a living have spawned accounts with millions of subscribers who find deep solace in footage of skilled craftsmen using high-pressure jets to dislodge chunks of badness from pipes. And I am one of them, I must admit. I could give up watching these things any time I want, I would say to myself at 3am, just after this one more.

As soothing and as world-righting as it is, Competence porn-addiction is not without its potential downsides. Much as some blame media images of unobtainable physical perfection – on the fashion pages, or the covers of men’s protein-shakes’n’pseudo-science magazines – as a contributing factor to many peoples’ low self-esteem, there is the risk that an over consumption of images of profound ability might lead to you never trying to do anything, on the basis that you are currently terrible, or a paralysis of profound disappointment when you encounter the real thing and it’s not as good as the TV version. This is especially so when the CP is the fictional sub-genre. For example, I’ve personally worked with very senior government officials in three countries, and the realization that none of them were anywhere close to the West Wing’s Leo McGarry (the OG of stand-and-salute fictional-CP scenes) was profoundly disillusioning. This isn’t an uncommon example, according to both Westminster and Washington lore.

But it is the former issue that is perhaps the more serious. Ira Glass, the American radio producer and presenter whose style has influenced a whole generation of broadcasters and, especially, podcasters, calls it the Taste Gap. “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.” He has said, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”

We are left with a real choice here. On the one hand, we can see profound mastery as an unobtainable state. One to be admired, or one to dash our hopes against, but either way a thing that is not for us. Or we can better see it as rather just the current situation of someone who is simply further along on the same journey as we are. Today’s generation of innovation experts and personal efficacy coaches have a name for this: the Growth Mindset. This is the way of thinking that says that with the correct application of proper effort, you can absolutely become the person as skilled as want to be, and that your current slightly-rubbish state is a necessary part of that path. Personal growth, and innovation at every level from the private to the corporate to the national depends on this mindset, and for the sake of the rest of the century, we should practice it. As I am, right now, getting to the good bit: the special box for televisions. It’s like a dream.