Wednesday, 17 January 2018
The theme of my thought for today is competence, or lack of it; a topic which never stops giving and deserves of an entire library of study. As barely evolved tool-using apes, it’s a minor miracle that the majority of us can hold down a useful job at all. As a general rule humans are barely adequate most of the time, often lacking knowledge, skills and insight and rarely exceptional. If you can’t think of anybody in your little tribe who is lazy, lacking in drive and generally incompetent then maybe it’s you.
There is much hand-wringing and blame-flinging going on over the Carillion collapse. It’s der gubmint wot dun it, cry The Labours; not us, replies the government; and certainly not us, plead the company directors. It turns out – and there will be much more to come – that the audits on which decisions relied were not searching enough, that contracts were inevitably awarded to the lowest bidders without due diligence and that warnings were not heeded. In summary humans are to blame, lots of them.
Is it ‘the system’? After all, if rigorous supervision isn’t in place where’s the incentive to do more than simply turn up and collect your salary? I can hear you protesting that this doesn’t apply to you, that you go above and beyond and that you are worth every penny. But so goes the plea of the crashed driver, the disgraced surgeon, the jailed accountant. I say again, the default human condition is general incompetence. We come into the world knowing nothing, with basic instincts to feed and avoid pain, the ability to learn and a certain acquisitive bent... and it all goes downhill from there.
Nature gives us those gifts, perhaps enhanced in some, but it is nurture which teaches us how to use them. We are taught and in the process we are moulded; religion, circumstance, politics, tragedy, triumph and formal education all add to the mix and make us what we are. How sad then, that most of us are, frankly, rubbish. We struggle and strive and imagine we are doing all we can and then, when we don’t get the reward we believe is ours by rights, we mostly stop trying to be the best and settle for mediocrity (though convince ourselves otherwise).
We see others apparently rewarded for failure, we see leaders followed by blind acolytes and we form a set of beliefs from which it is almost impossible to escape. Each side blames the other and is unable to see their own complicity in the complex realities of human life. A couple of nights ago, I heard a segment on LBC whereby the caller’s litany of Tory failings was refuted by the presenter using generally easily verifiable arguments. Every accusation was met with an easy answer and in every case that charge was dropped without comment and another wheeled into battle. It didn’t matter what the truth was, she was not going to be dislodged from her firm position that the Tories were responsible for every evil in the land.
But the most astonishing holy tenet was that Jeremy Corbyn would somehow right all the wrongs, nationalise – and thus cure – all essential industries and spread bring joy and peace and fairness all around. Presumably on the seventh day he’d take a nap. It seems that people are not only incompetent in themselves, but incompetent in grasping reality. And desperate in their need for others to be competent where they are not. Carillion is not the fault of any individual; its collapse was through the collective feeble endeavours of too many people not being quite capable enough. To err is human? Too right.