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Lesson #116: Un-learning Learned Incompetence

Posted Jan 09 2012 9:33am

One of the biggest things I’ve learned after nine months of living in sin is that if you want something done a certain way…you should not do it yourself.

This is not what I would have assumed a year ago. If someone can’t do something “right” or the way you think it should be done, it’s your problem, right?

Eh. Maybe if you’re super, super anal and unreasonable about how you want things done. I mean, if you want to make sure the lines left in the carpet by the vacuum are perfectly straight, yeah…you’re on your own. But in general, no, you shouldn’t just do it yourself, because you’re contributing to the problem of “learned incompetence.”

Leah and I have had many long discussions about learned incompetence, after her coworker introduced us to the concept a few months ago. We use the term to refer to the idea that people learn to be helpless because other people teach them they are/allow them to be. I’ve become a lot more aware of all the ways we assume people can’t do certain things (say, based on their sex) so we lower our expectations…which actually just makes them incompetent.

And while both sexes perpetuate this, I was more interested in the ways women do it because that meant I might be part of the problem — and that bothered me.

Here is an example of how you, as a woman might be a part of the problem to learned incompetence. Your boyfriend’s mom always did his laundry growing up. Then he got to college and sorta half-assed it once a semester for essentials (or, let’s be honest, just bought new underwear) but pretty much just waited until he could take piles of dirty laundry home with him over long breaks because he knew his mom would take pity on him and do it for him. If anyone were to question his mom, she might just laugh and say, “Oh, well, he could do it himself, but he’d probably turn all his whites pink! His father can’t seem to do laundry either…” and then everyone would nod and agree that yeah, men can’t do laundry.

So then you come along, and now that you’re living together, you’re disgusted by the piles of laundry that he’s leaving all over your beautiful space, and after telling him a few times to do it, he claims he doesn’t know how — which is somewhat true, because when he stopped taking it to his parents’ place, he started sending it out to be done (where, if statistics are to be believed, it was probably done by another woman) — and after a while, the piles start to gross you out, and that, coupled with the fact that he actually doesn’t really which cycle to use — because how the hell would he? — leads you to just start throwing it in with your laundry. And then a year later, you just do all the laundry.

And then twenty years later, your son is bringing his laundry home to you on his college breaks.

(And if you think women can’t be taught incompetence too, just replace “your boyfriend’s mom” and “do laundry” in that paragraph with “your dad” and “use a grill.”)

It’s hard to break that “men are incompetent/women are just better at certain things” mindset. You can’t make it through a single commercial break without seeing some man ruining dinner or living like a slob, waiting for some product (or woman, or both) to come along and make life easier for him. Even though it’s 2012, so many male characters on TV or in movies are shown as being immature and needing to be saved. It’s seen as somehow desirable and romantic when a big shot male character needs a woman to cook him dinner. I’m all for the idea of more women heroines rescuing men, but why are we rescuing them from household chores?

And even if you take TV and movies out of it, and even if you know that there are millions of men who can do laundry and millions of women who can change a tire, you’re left with friends, coworkers, and family who simply don’t care if they can’t. Right? We all just treat it as cute when people are bad at the things that stereotypes say they are. The worst we’re going to do is roll our eyes.

So at the beginning of living in sin, that was how I was. It wasn’t a huge problem; Eric and I are both capable of doing most things you’d expect 26-year-old adults to be able to do. That said, we both have our weaknesses. And I wanted to manage these weaknesses, to be “the one who is good at X” in the relationship, letting him be “the one who is good at Y.”

But once I became aware of learned incompetence, I didn’t want to waste my time and energy doing things for him or let myself grow dependent on him. I don’t skip doing bicep curls with my left hand because it’s weaker since I’m right-handed. “Well, my right arm is the one I use more often so I’m just going to go ahead and strengthen that arm and skip the left.” What? No. And similarly, the fact that I’m better at cooking both because I have more experience and because I genuinely enjoy it doesn’t that I should just shoo Eric out of the kitchen the second he makes a mistake. Nor should I dismiss the things I can’t do as well with, “Oh, Eric just does that for me now.” No. Gross.

I think that when it comes to living with a significant other, we have to be OK with letting then try and fail. Letting them try comes easier than letting them fail, though. Instead of reminding him to get his passport renewed 30 times, remind him once. Then? It’s not your problem. And I know this is hard; it’s easy to say “If he doesn’t have his passport, it will ruin my trip so that’s my problem.” No. It’s still his problem. He can deal with how pissed you are about him screwing up your trip; bet you next time he’ll renew his passport. Similarly, don’t keep telling her to call and make a doctor’s appointment. Yes, I know if she doesn’t get that mole checked out it might be cancerous and then you’ll be really upset, but just…stop. Shhhh . Just shhhh.

And if they try and don’t fail, awesome. But try to resist making a huge damn just because broke stereotypes and did something any grown-ass adult should be able to do. You just aren’t going to see my O face when Eric makes me dinner. I really appreciate it, the same way I do when anyone cooks for me, but then I move on. It’s not that big of a deal, and treating it as such is condescending. It also just makes it seem like a special event rather than something that can and should happen on a regular basis.

If you can’t find the right balance between helping out your SO and teaching helplessness, use how you treat your coworkers as a guide. Yeah, you’ll do your cube mate a favor by inputting some Excel formulas the one time she needs to know how to do them at work, but you wouldn’t do it for her if it was one of her job requirements. Eventually, you’d let her bosses see that she’s struggling knowing that she’ll either learn Excel or deal with the consequences. And you don’t smother her in hugs and kisses and praise when she gets it right. You tell her good job and move on.

Trying and failing will lead to what I see as the ultimate goal: learning. I don’t want to hear men say, “I didn’t know how to do laundry and then I got married and now my wife does it;” I want to hear them say, “I didn’t know how to do laundry and then I got married and my wife taught me.” Or, even better, “Yeah, I know how to do laundry. My dad taught me when I was ten years old.”

I learned how to do a lot of things living with other women; I’d like to say I learned how to do a lot of things living with a man.

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