Do You Suffer the Curse of Competence?

Audio Transcript

Male Speaker: You mentioned that entrepreneurs are genetically encoded to do this.

Jim Collins: Yes. They’re constitutionally unemployable.


Male Speaker: You and I were talking before everybody came in this morning, and the notion of a genetic code that is a part of your package comes up a lot in conversations with you, and I’m curious if you can decode the genetic code as such an important part of how you think about work excellence.

Jim Collins: If you have a notepad, I want you all to draw a little—I mean, I’m still a professor, so I have to have frameworks, okay? I want you to draw a little framework, and I’ll answer it with a little framework. Let’s go back to the lab book, and studying the bug called Jim, trying to understand this bug. The lab book had three sections in it that roughly coincide with three intersecting circles. So, imagine you have three intersecting circles, and your task is to find the intersection of all three. 

Circle one, in the top circle, section one, is what you are absolutely passionate about and love to do. So, all the things in the lab notebook that go into that, ” I really like to do this; this is interesting,” ”It makes time fly,” whatever, but you’re passionate about it, you believe in it.  

The bottom-left circle, which is section two of the lab notebook, is, “What are those things that I was genetically encoded to do? That I was born to do?” Now, that’s a very different thing. Let me use an example to illustrate. I’ll do it on two sides.  

Most of us suffer from the curse of competence. All of you in this room suffer from the curse of competence, which means that there are things you can be good at because you have an abundance of talent. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in the small subset of things that you are genetically programmed to potentially be truly excellent at.  

Let me illustrate in a personal example of the difference between those. When I came out of high school and went to college, everybody thought I should be a mathematician because I was one of these kids who did well in math and all of that. And I went off and I majored in applied mathematics.  

And sure enough, I was. I had a real competence at math. Then I met the people who are genetically encoded for math.


Male Speaker: You didn’t look like them.

Jim Collins: No. Their brains are just wired really differently. I would come and take three hours to finish the exam. They would come in, take twenty minutes, with some brilliant, insightful—their brain was made for mathematics, particularly pure mathematics. And voom, they’d disappear in twenty minutes. And when the bell curve came out, they’re were the ones out here. 

Now, I had a competence at math, but I wasn’t genetically encoded. I wasn’t genetically programmed that this is what I was made to do. There’s a big, big difference between what you’re good at, what you’ve learned to do, and what you are made to do. So, that’s the next circle down.

The third circle is what people will pay you to do.  

Male Speaker: Uh-huh [affirmative].


Jim Collins: If you take the top circle, it’s simply not true that if you do what you love, the money will follow. I love listening to Brahms.  


I could listen to Brahms’s Symphony 3 a hundred times—I have listened to it a hundred times, just driving to work. Nobody’s going to pay me to listen to Brahms 3. 

The real secret, then, is when you find the intersection of those three circles, to where you’re spending your life doing stuff you’re passionate about and love to do, stuff that—not you’re good at, but you were genetically programmed for—when you do it, you say, “I know I was made to do this” and somebody pays you.

Male Speaker: Uh-huh [affirmative]. Okay.

Jim Collins: Bingo. Touchdown.

Male Speaker: That’s it. That’s the sweet spot.

Jim Collins: Yes.

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