There’s something triumphant about a total refusal to be useful. This was my reaction when I first learned about strategic incompetence, a recent hobbyhorse of the internet’s relationship ethicists. Also known as learned incompetence or weaponized incompetence, it’s often leveraged so that your shortcomings force someone else to fix the paper jam or call the super. Online, it has become shorthand for a highly gendered manipulation, by which men act baffled by the grocery store and all the burdens of domestic maintenance fall upon the women in their lives. It’s a red flag, it’s a breaking point, it’s a sign of bad standards, it’s the first whisper of entrenched resentment forever and ever amen.
Meanwhile, I’m over here guiltlessly weaponizing my incompetence right and left. I simply cannot figure out how to attach the Velcro snow boots my dog reviles, an inability that upholds my position as his best friend. My strategic idiocy with spreadsheets has saved me from any professional proximity to “consulting.” Where do we keep the drain snake, I do not know. My partner has weaponized incompetence about the basement and calling discouraging bureaucracies. That’s lucky for them, because I am both brave and insistent.
When people approach the New Year, they often look to polish and improve their talents and skills in this world. I’m looking to my future and thinking, with certainty: Life would only be better if I were even more terrible at even more things. I love my carefully selected ineptitudes as if each were a friend. They protect me and make me feel flippant and devilish.
Here are some things I would like to get less good at. First, I’m going to stop being very good at giving gifts. Mediocre gifts from this point forward. Now, if you are one of my 16 friends, don’t fret: My famous birthday cards will continue to arrive an eager two weeks prior to your birthday (embargoed, of course). I’m also going to stop trying so hard at the gym. In October, I joined a strength-training gym a few blocks away, because three of my friends go (three!). Also, everyone at the gym says “Yes, Coach” whenever the trainer gives instructions, which is kinky. I don’t say “Yes, Coach” and I don’t care about strength training. I just care about my friends. They’ll always be more ripped than me; it’s very peaceful. And I’m as strong as I want to be. I can hoist a suitcase over my head, but I cannot lift a couch on my own. Nor do I want to. My competence stops here.
One person cannot do all things, despite my best efforts in 2021. I deeply regret my last attempt at competence, a classic rush to learn French before a big trip last summer. While there, I only made three earth-shattering mistakes, including a compliment to someone’s “little ears,” which is surprisingly not the translation for “earrings.” But I hated the classes and I hated studying. Once I was in France, reading translated Annie Ernaux on a balcony, I realized I would have rather spent my time with more translated Ernaux than having learned to moderately speak French. Competence is wearying. It tricks me by funneling my time into “useful pursuits” rather than “frivolous amusements.”
My selected incompetencies are my beloved limits. They’re a decisive strategy; they keep me from achieving things I don’t care about at all. And learned incompetencies make the people around me look good. Everyone else who is so much better than I am, at so many things — the ripped friends of the universe, the ones who can read transit maps, the ones who mandoline vegetables with gusto — will look at me and they will feel strong and skilled and useful. As they should.
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