Competency Matrix

In my all-time most viewed post, Serotonin and Social Status, I inquired as to whether there are mindsets that protect us from societal influences on serotonin levels. Five years later I finally attempt to answer that question with Does Competency-Awareness Drive Serotonin Levels?

Jordan Peterson posits something like (I’m paraphrasing), no one knows the upper limits of the benefits we might incur through maximizing our competency. With that context, here’s this post.


WHO AMONG US is maximally competent? Who can say they cannot become more competent than they are now? Clearly, the answer to both questions is no one.  So we all share the same goal: increasing our own competence. Competence at what? Well, how about the biggest challenge of all: life itself. So the question that follows that is, what does it take to be competent in life? And, could virtue be a synonym for key competencies?

Here’s a short (no doubt incomplete) list:

  • Creating new life— procreation. This one may feel out of place in this list, as it is less of a skill than a function of biology. But continuing humanity is so foundationally important (it is why we do just about everything we do) that it belongs in this list, and first.
  • Reciprocal thinking (the Golden Rule)— How much needs to be said about that that hasn’t already been said? Shoe on the other foot thinking helps us modulate our behaviors, so we hurt those around us the least way possible, and be an example of how we want them to be with us.
  • Participating fully in life— Living in a forthright manner, engaging in the sorrows of the world without becoming jaded or cynical, and taking on the reduction of suffering of others as more important than the reduction of your own suffering.
  • Judiciousness— Some competencies are at odds with other competencies (nurturing vs. autonomy, for instanc). A monkey swinging from vine to vine knows that there is a time for holding on and a time for letting go. The absence of judiciousness manifests as rigidity and dogmatism.
  • Nurturing— Caring for children, that they may grow up to be functional adults. Excessive nurturing can stifle autonomy, so balance is required.
  • Friend-making/keeping— likability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, negotiation. Going it alone makes for a rough life, and robs us of the opportunity to be helped by others.
  • Brains & brawn— These two are obligatory, staples of competency. As a side note, as physical labor is replaced with technology, the areas where brawn is required is diminishing, while the areas where brains are required is growin.

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.”

—John 1, KJV
  • Proper relationship to the Word— John couldn’t spell it out any clearer, yet even the devout will say it ain’t so, just so they get to justify their own sarcasm, hyperbole and other forms of mischaracterization as not at all a rebuke of John. Keeping your word is key to trustworthiness, reliability, and integrity. But the importance of your word goes far beyond that. There is significant evidence that thoughts can alter gene expression (ostensibly for the better), and what are thoughts but words spoken to ourselves? But wait, there’s more. The Word is that which creates order from chaos, it is with God (however you come to understand that), and misuse of the Word either misunderstands or perverts your relationship to it. Sarcasm is the realm of the embittered; when you’ve lost your faith in the power of The Word, you subvert it by cynically uttering the opposite of your aspirations. When your relationship to the Word is perverted, your words are more destructive than constructive. When you habitually complain about them, you fail to take up your responsibility to attempt to improve things with your words. It’s hard to be disappointed when you’re uttering how much you love your miserable situation. Complaint is a starting point, not a destination. Your words should be undergirded by love of humanity, not hatred. Words-don’t-matter is unchristian (to those who might care about that) and it is a form of nihilism: an abdication of our ethical duty to reduce the suffering of humanity. No one knows what the upper limits are of a person who devotes his or her life to maximally applying the Word to call forth order from chaos. But there is plenty of evidence to show that failing to properly and habitually apply The Word increases the likelihood that your life will fall into chaos. As tragic as life can be, addressing our relationship to the Word may be our best shot at reducing our own tragedies.

“There’s no better way to bring better being into being than to speak the truth.”

— Jordan B. Peterson, Biblical Series II: Genesis 1: Chaos & Order

“…but most particularly in the form of truthful language in order to produce the world in a manner that’s good. And I think that’s a walloping powerful, powerful idea, especially the relationship between the idea that it’s truthful speech that gives rise to the good, because that’s a really fundamental moral claim and I think that’s a tough one to beat…. repression is a lie of omission… you can’t get your hands on the problem if you can’t describe it truthfully”

— Jordan B. Peterson, Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority
  • Proper relationship to truth— Given the importance of the Word, a question that logically arises next is, “when is it ok to lie?” Some lies are obviously bad, while little white lies fall into a grey area. If our goal is to minimize human suffering across as many people as possible across as long of a span of time as possible (all possible futures), then this can inform our relationship to the truth. Speaking untrue words is a perversion of The Word, and ought to be avoided at all costs. So is conflating opinionated language with truthful language: Hey, I was just being honest when I said you look fat. You look fat is an opinion. Yes, it sure is true that you think that, but that doesn’t redeem its relationship to truthful language. That said, sometimes true words cause suffering. Yes, sometimes brutal honesty can yield a net benefit. But brutal honesty can also be crushing to the listener. Words spoken with then intent to reduce suffering can unintentionally have the reverse effect. How confident are you that your brutally honest words will have a net reduction of suffering? If you aren’t sure, you are gambling with the suffering of others to just say it anyway (perhaps as a matter of principle). Increasing suffering out of principle makes for a flawed principle. The converse is applicable too: you may want to lie to spare someone’s feelings in the moment, (you might withhold telling someone at a party their fly is unzipped), but you had an opportunity to reduce a greater suffering by causing a lesser suffering and you withheld anyway (perhaps you lacked the strength to cause them a small amount of shame in order to spare them a larger shame). The relationship to the truth is not black and white, but it is navigable.
  • Trustworthiness— If you cannot keep your word, then only fools will trust you. If you go along with those who cannot keep their word, you are the fool. 
  • Cooperation— the ability to extend our influence outwards, maximizing our effectiveness. Friendliness is prerequisite to maximize opportunities for cooperation.
  • Autonomy— Autonomy and cooperation are at odds with each other. And paradoxically, cooperation assists autonomy. So, know when to go it on your own, so as not to become a burden to others.

If you have someone that you know that has a problem the best thing you can often do is listen to them— if they are actually trying to communicate— because people configure themselves through speech… unless the person was aiming upward there was nothing you could do about it… until the person has decided on their own that they are wrong— and that’s why they’re suffering, because there is something wrong about what they’re doing— and if they want to fix it, I think that even trying to hammer against that often makes it worse.” 

— Jordan B. Peterson, Biblical Series II: Genesis 1: Chaos & Order
  • Proper boundaries— Optimal boundaries are not self-evident. On the one hand, a desire to reduce suffering compels us to help others. On the other hand, sometimes people don’t want your help, partly because they believe that the problem does not lie with them. To quote Peterson again, “Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.”
  • Agility & endurance— outmaneuver threats, capture dinner
  • Reason/Logic— math, inductive/deductive reasoning, distinguishing between facts and claims and opinions. Do all the things we do, only smarter.
  • Self-awareness, self-reflection— critical to continuous self-improvement. Failure to self-update results in stagnation. We all know folk we wish had a habit of self-reflection. Well, guaranteed there are folk out there that wish that of you. 
  • Resiliency— Life won’t stop presenting you with situations that require those skills you are less competent at. We wish that wasn’t so. New Agers call this whatever you resist persists. If that wasn’t bad enough, everyone’s life contains tragedy; if not now, then just wait a minute. How are you at handling tragedy upon tragedy? When you allow the burdens of your life to break your spirit, you have added one more tragedy to your life. Crushed spirits are rife with negative thoughts and actions: jealousy, envy, resentment, cynicism. Remain steadfast in pursuit of the ideal you. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Openness to new ideas— The ability to enjoy learning new things; the ability to assess discoveries without prejudice. One of the Big Five Personality Traits.
  • Hierarchy building— Place the most competent people in those tasks at which they excel.
  • Hierarchy maintenance— Hierarchies can become pathological in at least two ways: either they break down, devolving into chaos, or they become tyrannical, worsening the lot of those at the bottom.
  • Compassion— In hierarchical structures, there will always be those at the bottom, the dispossessed. It benefits society as a whole when the suffering of those at the bottom is lessened.
  • Conscientiousness— includes reliability, thoroughness, and organization. One of the Big Five Personality Traits.
  • Creativity— The ability to envision that which is not yet so; the first step in bringing it into being.
  • Safety/Caution— Keeping you and your group free from harm.
  • Exploration— Delving into the unknown is a necessary risk that we may discover new things that improve everyone’s lot. Safety and Exploration are at odds with each other, individuals are typically stronger in one than the other. A cautious explorer is probably not the best explorer.
  • Extraversion— Energy, talkativeness, and assertiveness are found here. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I know my competency here is quite possibly the worst. So I try to make a habit of putting myself out in the social sphere more than is comfortable for me. One of the Big Five Personality Traits.
  • Self-discipline— Strategically sacrificing your wants now in order to maximally benefit all the future yous.
  • Assertiveness— “If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.” – Cecilia Payne. Assertiveness is an aspect of extraversion that deserves its own mention. Assertiveness requires balance: too little and you’re a pushover; too much and you’re an asshole.
  • Toughness— The ability to face threats head on maximizes chances for successful outcomes
  • Vulnerability— Our unaddressed fears hold us back.
  • Patience— significant change is often a lengthy process, impatience can backfire, slowing the change you want now
  • Ability to regulate negative emotions— Negative emotions let ourselves know something might be wrong and is worth investigating. Allowed free reign, negative emotions can make us bitter, cynical, jaded, and generally unpleasant to those who do not allow negative emotions to dominate their consciousness. Neuroticism is one of the Big Five Personality Traits. It’s easy to harsh on neuroticism, but neuroticism assists Caution/Safety and Nurturing. Neuroticism acts as vigilance against potential threats, which keeps us and our offspring alive another day. Excess neuroticism keeps us in a cocoon; out of fear, we don’t experience the full richness of the world.
  • Ability to regulate disagreeableness— be disagreeable when necessary, and no more. Agreeableness is one of the Big Five Personality Traits.
  • Humor— A sense of humor inoculates us against the tragedy of our lives.
  • Intuitive thinking— Our thought processes are so complex that some insights seem to defy logical thinking but are valuable nonetheless
  • Encouragement— Focusing critically on incomplete good ideas can be a form of discouragement, preventing the idea from coming into finer resolution. Highlight everything that is right about the idea, and behave in good faith to refine the gaps.

It is incredibly hard to rank order these various skills. Despite the difficulty, placing procreation first ought to be self-evident and uncontroversial. Obviously, without procreation, we die out in one generation. And it’s a gender-specific competency: women do it (with minimal assistance from men), but the reverse is not true. Beyond that, everything that men do is ultimately in service of #1. Which makes gender cooperation maximally important.

Self-reflection belongs somewhere in the top ten, and it may be the one the fewest of us are competent at. Whether we shun self-reflection out of insecurity (I don’t want to think about my incompetencies) or arrogance (I don’ need improving), either way, we block our own improvement.

Resiliency belongs in the top ten too. Chronic complainers lack competency in both resiliency and self-reflection; these are the cynics.

Super Human

Maximizing our potential is something we all want, and none of us knows the upper limits to our own potential. This topic has been dear to me for, well, since at least sixth grade (teaser for future post). The culmination of 40 plus years of engaging with this inquiry is my first book, Super Human, a young adult sci-fi novella that tackles this topic in an entertaining way. If you’d like more of this, check it out.

Addendum: I just found this unpublished post from four years ago. Apropos so cross-linking here.

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