The ‘Competent Man’ (or woman) is a character in literature who has a vast range of skills and abilities that make them appear to be capable of doing anything. Classic male examples are Jeeves or Angus MacGyver. Now, I’m pretty sure that I’m not one of these mythical men, but I was reminded of this creature when I came across a quote from Robert Heinlein, attributed to a character in one of his novels, Lazarus Long:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Well, this quote was written about 50 odd years ago by someone who was a great believer in self-reliance, but I can manage 15 or 16 of those. To save you trying to work out what I haven’t yet managed – I get my meat from a butcher, have invaded nowhere (unless you cound the battles I’ve played out when wargaming), fight like a girl and haven’t yet died, let alone died gallantly.
But what might we consider to be skills for a competent person today?
The thing that struck me is that we have tended to become more specialised, and often specialised in the minutiae or trivia of life. I’d be interested to see what people think we might add to the above as ‘skills for the competent human being’ today. Not ‘skills for the corporate drone’! Here are my initial thoughts:
have an understanding of national politics, take part in civilised debate and research for the same, entertain small children, be a good listener, manage one’s personal privacy, plan and execute a protest, put up a blog or web site, find and hold down a job, run a household, be comfortable around the aged and dieing, host a meal, organise a funeral, apply basic maintenance to car and home, practice an artistic pursuit, understand some basic science and technology.
I guess that years ago anyone who could do this many different types of activity competently would have been regarded as a very well rounded personality but not necessarily that uncommon (obviously, replace blog or web site with something appropriate for the historical period) – today, I think that they’d be a rarity.
Which is a shame.