Competent Happiness

I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out on my own (it’s #68 in the happiness book) because when you think about it, it’s obvious:  Doing things we’re good at makes us happy.  

Success usually makes us happy, but I think even more the process of succeeding, doing something we’re confident about, making something we’re skilled at and enjoy doing, has to achieve something like a state of flow, the sense that where we are and what we’re doing is exactly where and what we were meant to be.  Which of course puts Working Wednesdays in a whole new context.  Doing what we’re good at is good for us (assuming we enjoy it, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it).  

I was thinking about the book the other day and realized I am no longer worried about it.  I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’ve reached that stage where I know what I’m doing.  I’m good at this part, at pulling it all together, at fixing plot holes and pacing, I know what I’m doing here.  That’s a real rush.  I’m happy.

This may also be why we like watching people doing what they do well, aka competence porn.

Don’t feel guilty about doing things you’re good at, even if other people dismiss those things as hobbies or daydreams or trashy romance novels.  Doing things you’re good at is good for you.

65 thoughts on “Competent Happiness

  1. I mean that’s definitely where some of my love of baking comes from. I’ve done it enough that the process is predictable and soothing. Even my failures become interesting experiments to learn from.

    I feel like I’m kind of in the minority with competence porn. I don’t dislike it, but I can’t always relate to hyper competent people and find them a bit dull. They need to have a lot going on with their personality to make for up for that. Miss Fisher comes to mind, she’s hyper competent (one of Kerry Greenwood’s inspirations was James Bond), but I love that she unapologetically loves sex and money and decadence and has a dry sense of humor.

    I’m more drawn to the characters who are really struggling or bumbling along in their life/job/hobby/passion and get stronger/better at something as the book goes on. It’s a tough line to walk because you don’t want a Helpless Hannah either where she’s tripping her own shoes so something happens in the story. I just would rather read about growth than perfection.

    1. I second the character-growth-preference. Could possibly be because I can’t identify myself with characters that are perfect from start to finish. The bumpy rieds usually give them more depth and different layers of personality, splits them up in a delicate puzzle of things that makes them who they are. Feels more realistic to me.

    2. I don’t think “competent” means “without flaws.”
      Go back to Leverage. Those are five screwed up people with huge flaws, but they’re damn good at what they do. So the stories over five (?) seasons arc their characters as they overcome their flaws, but each story shows them taking down the bad guys with their skills.
      Contrast that with Legends of Tomorrow which is about a bunch of bumblers who just keep trying until they get it right. Their character arcs are also massive (Mick for example) but the fun of watching them is the absurdity of the plots and the way they stumble through them. Not competence porn because it’s comedy and competence isn’t funny.
      But Leverage? That’s competence porn.

  2. The best is a mixture of competent and vulnerable/growing as a person – which is why I think Leverage worked so well, they were all super at their talent, but incompetent at relating to others. Also why the Murderbot series is SO satisfying.

    1. Other people have answered, so I’m coming in late, but it basically describes the thrill (porn) of somebody doing something he or she is really good at. Leverage has always been my go-to for competence porn because they’re all so damn good at what they do, even if they’re all nuts. I think it also happens in real life, when you watch an athlete at the top of her or his game or a singer or other artist simply nail what they do. There’s a pleasure in watching people do things well that’s almost erotic because it touches something within us. Absolute mastery is something we admire, and the display of that mastery becomes competence porn because of the feeling it evokes in us.

          1. No need for redemption. Leverage keeps coming up because it’s such good competence porn and that’s what we’re talking about. It’s a caper show, so there’s a lot of intricate planning and then five skilled people working to bring down the bad guy in some kind of elaborate con. It’s PoI without angst. Also funny.

  3. I think it has been one of those terms that most relates to the way in which we experience one character who has a deficit of some trait — maybe always, or maybe just in a particular instance — rescued or backed up by another who is good at that same trait. The display of that skill or capacity is not just satisfying under those circumstances, but it can also build the competent person’s attractiveness, either to the reader in general or (and usually) also to the incompetent one.

    That is, if I’m understanding the concept right myself. I think of Cal demonstrating to Min how to cook chicken marsala properly after Min’s disastrous failure to do so, and Min’s effortless facedown of Cal’s parents & summation of things he couldn’t express to them about his strengths that they’d been ignoring as deficits. In both cases, the other’s competence (which was shown in support for themselves) enhanced their appeal for the incompetent one.

    Is that more or less on target?

    1. I think that’s too conditional.

      Watching competence porn is watching somebody do something they’re really good at, so good that the act of watching them creates the same thrill in us that we’d experience if we had the same skill.

      The key is the “porn.” That is, it’s the object of a viewer who is turned on by what he or she sees.

      Doesn’t have to be visual. I’ve always thought that what made Davy attractive in Faking It was competence porn: he was just so good at conning those paintings out of people.

      1. I don’t know. Every Bond villain was super-competent, up to the point when Bond thwarted him/her. Moriarty was super-competent. I don’t really care about the competence per se in books or movies unless it becomes part of the overall scheme of character formation or demonstration. If Davy had been conning picture owners out of extremely valuable paintings in order to profit from them and move on, I wouldn’t have liked him at all. I think what was so likeable about the Goodnights was the complicated line they were all walking between different kinds of artifice and genuine goodheartedness.

        With all his con-savviness, Davy fell at one point for Clea, who was running her own competent con, and it was never really fun to watch Clea do her Clea thing. So I feel like in fiction, competence has to follow the aims of the story to really satisfy the reader somehow. Possibly I am an aberration, though. Competence-immune or something.

        1. I don’t think Bond Villains are super competent. They usually have a terribly impractical plan overall. They tell Bond all about it so that he can thwart it. They could shoot him straight off but would rather do something complicated with a shark which gives him a way to escape. They’ve usually made some money to execute the plan but even Donald Trump can make (or inherit) money.

          1. There’s a scene at the end of Men At Arms (Pratchett, of course) where the narrator says something like, “If anybody is ever holding a gun on you and intends to kill you, pray he’s a bad man because a bad man will take time to gloat. A good man will just kill you.” And then, of course the bad man has a gun on our hero and is telling him why it was important that he did the terrible things he did, and a good man comes in and kills him without a word. Such beautiful, clean story-telling, but I loved the idea that the bad man needed the time to explain and the good man just did what had to be done.

  4. Hmm, someone can jump in and redefine it for me, but my personal definition is when someone is very skilled in an activity (could be anything, carpentry, lock picking, juggling, costume design) and there is a focus on it (in a TV show, book, or movie) more for the sheer pleasure of watching a master at work rather than for any specific narrative purpose. Cooking shows and home improvement shows often have an element of competence porn. It can be more broad than one skill someone like House diagnosing or Sherlock Holmes solving crimes, but it’s a “watch this person pull this incredible thing off” moment or moments

    1. and for this word

      porn = v. mesmerizing, feels good to watch/experience doesn’t actually have to have any actual sexual/romantic components.

      like food porn or house porn don’t have anything to do with porn. Hmmm. . . language is weird.

  5. I prefer to watch and read about people who aren’t necessarily at the top of their game but are striving. People who compete on the various cooking shows are very good at what they do but are far more interesting to my than many of the hosts, who are great chefs. For me, watching Bobby Flay is about as exiting as watch paint dry.

    I agree that doing activities you are competent at is a confidence-booster, but it depends on how you define “competence”. I love making Christmas cookies and I’m pretty good at it. However, I’m an average cross-country skiier and I love it too.

    1. I love watching Ina Garten.
      Must be a personal preference thing. I used to love that cake decorating show, can’t remember the name of it, for the same reason. They were SO good.

      1. There are two skills involved: doing and teaching. Bobby Flay may be a great restaurateur, but that doesn’t mean he is great at communicating the skills while instilling the confidence to keep practicing until you master them. We know him from lots of competitive venues where he is either judging us or trying to wow the judges. That doesn’t encourage you to view him as being on your side.
        Ina Garten is presented as a friend who wants you to discover how easy the whole thing is so that you, too, can do it without killing yourself.

        1. I don’t know Flay from tv, but I read his books. Let me tell you, the man knows how to construct a good dish and he’s excellent at it. For me, competence porn.

    2. I watch Beat Bobby Flay just to cheer on the visiting chefs.

      Also, i may have an internal fan fiction where I’ve written stories that certain character (s) cannot cope with their cranky, colicky, teething, nursing newborns and their wedding businesses.

      1. I’ve watched Bobby Flay exactly once. It was a good 15 – 20 years ago. He had 2 other people helping him cook. And he was so hateful, condescending, arrogant, and rude to the lady that I made it about 10 minutes and I’ve never watched him since.

  6. I love to read aloud to my students. I’m good at it, it’s fun, I do voices.
    When we’re having a shitty day, we stop and I go read to them. If nothing else it improves everyone’s mood.

  7. Mihaly Csikzentmihaly wrote about it in Flow. Which I still need to buy!

    Flow is essentially a part of positive psychology theory about the balance between challenge and ability where a task’s not boring to do but not so difficult it stumps you.

    We like applying our skill and intelligence to accomplish something. So watching someone do so is quite satisfying too!

  8. For me, competence porn is not just watching someone who is good at what they do, it’s watching someone who is so good at it that it becomes art. A Mastercraftsman or Mastercraftswoman with a world of knowledge behind every move they make. That’s what makes the Leverage team so fun to watch for me – they know exactly what they’re doing and it’s art. I saw a performance by the skater Irina Slutskaya that was like that – every single move was exactly what it should be because she knew her craft.

  9. I love doing things I’m really good at. Like, uh… (Sorry, it’s the middle of December and I’m burnt like bad toast.)

    I enjoy being good at my job, most days. In part because it is a weird mix of different skill sets that are unusual to find in one person (artist creativity plus organizational skills plus people skills, plus pragmatic financial skills). A business like ours in a town nearby pays five different people to do what I do by myself. Mind you, I’ve been running the shop–an artists’ cooperative–for over 19 years, and I didn’t have all these skills when I started. Still, I like being competent. Most days.

  10. So, Weeds, which I’ve been watching, is the opposite of competence porn. I keep expecting Nancy Botwin to stop making horrific decisions for herself and her family. I decided that I hate her so much now that I have to stop watching even though there are characters that I enjoy. Has anybody else watched this?

    I keep hoping that she’s going to finally get competent and there will be new challenges where she doesn’t have to lose everything and start over. Or if she starts over, maybe she’ll make a different decision and not fuck her whole family over. This woman does not learn. I am hugely disappointed in this show because I can’t believe that anyone on this earth is as stupid, self-centered, self-destructive, as this woman. I’ve watched like seven seasons waiting for her to get a clue. Nope.

    Okay, I’m finished with that now.

    Competence porn: For me, it’s so satisfying to watch someone do something well because I want them to succeed. It gives me that vicarious thrill. Like when the underdog wins and I feel this surge of YES. It is possible to be good at something and win.

    I’m conflicted because, on one hand, I do think I’m winning at life. I’m out of my marriage and that soul-sucking job – and I’ve learned that I internalize stress and that I’d better not take jobs that require me to be superwoman if I want to live a long time. I’d love to never have another boss again ever.

    On the other hand, I suck at the financials. I understand money, I know what I should do, but then I just go off the deep end and spend a hundred dollars I don’t have on fabric to make Christmas presents. WTF? I know I shouldn’t do that. And then, the fabric comes, and instead of doing the writing first. Finishing the words that make me money, I dive into making things. God, I love to make things. And I’m good at it. Really good at it. Other people pay me to make their wedding dresses good-at-it.

    But it doesn’t pay the bills. And I know this. So why do I let myself get sucked into the joy of creating things with my hands when I’m supposed to be using my brain to write? Why?

    Oh, This post is about joy/happiness. Rats. Sorry Argh people.

    The joy is making things. Making my own patterns. Altering other people’s patterns. Seeing something on Pinterest and then making it my own. Seeing something as a jumping off place, rather than the finished product. That’s my joy.

    1. I think you’ve got your priorities straight: they’re just not what our hypercapitalist culture tells us we should prioritize. Enjoying life is the most important thing; then you’ll really be yourself and make that contribution to the world. This is something I battle with all the time.

  11. Do you see what I did there? Unload on Nancy Botwin about her bad choices and then tell you all about mine.

    Well, at least I’m not sleeping with Mexican Drug Lords or dealing drugs for a living. I’ll give myself that.

    1. Sweetie, we’ll give it to you too, “not sleeping with Mexican Drug Lords or dealing drugs for a living.”

  12. Proofed the January-February issue of California Garden magazine, so off to the printer it goes. I remember the issue we spelled “Balboa” as “Balbao.” On the cover. Which is when I became involved with proof-reading, a competence.

    Put up and took down Christmas this weekend for Balboa Park’s December Nights. Ate gingerbread, made merry, fluffed up, dismantled — all my core skills. What’s not to like?

    Survived the Great Coronado Flood. Discovered my competence in wading and cleaning/drying faux fur boots. Really, we wanted rain, but not All The Rain, not from a overhead rain cloud that refused to budge for two hours. We are so not equipped and non-competent.

    1. Congrats, Thea on finding faux fur boots made for wading through the Great Coronado Flood of 2018. In 1905, the Great Coronado Flood washed away most of Ocean Blvd so John Spreckels built the sea wall in 1906. Maybe Coronado leaders should ask themselves, what would Spreckels have done when they’re planning for future floods? I’m not in Coronado but I saw the flooding on the news — kudos to everyone who handled it so well.

      1. Thanks, Mary. Sure was a surprise. City has excellent drainage, we just had too much water in too short a time. Did I mention it was a surprise? Believe me, I appreciate John D. more and more. This IS the city he built.

      1. Outside, wading to arrive at yoga class at the high school. Class cancelled. Called on all my yoga competency of acceptance.

  13. I think that’s why I secretly loved Australian Ninja Warrior. People being really competent. And the ballet. And watching snooker on TV. And Cirque du Soleil. And my partner on a mountain bike, where he looks way more at home than just walking. And Finch, Bond, Lisbeth Salander, Tyrion, so many great characters. There’s a lot of competence out there. If only there was more in the corridors of power.

    1. I actually find competent tyranny far more terrifying than incompetent tyranny. The latter is far easier to dislodge.

  14. Thanks for a lightbulb moment, Jenny: These days I find less pleasure in something I’m good at, writing, because it is increasingly wrapped up in something I haven’t been good at, technology.

    Which means that if I want to increase my work enjoyment, I need to increase my tech competency.

      1. I enjoy handwriting. I developed personal letterforms as a teenager, and though my writing’s evolved, I still enjoy the grace and quirkiness of it.

      2. Oh, writing is fine; the only issue there is that I hit the keys hard because I learned to compose on a manual typewriter. Like God intended.

        It’s just that as a freelancer, I also have to be skilled at shared Google spreadsheets, social media analytics and the difference in structure for a tweet vs. a Linked In post vs. a Linked In post with video. There are a hundred technological mosquito bites a day, from the Dropbox file that won’t download to the online meeting where the presenter can’t figure out how to share the screen. And clients increasingly assume that if they send an email Saturday, I’ll respond by Monday morning.

        Most of the time I’m grateful for everything that technology makes possible. REALLY grateful. I just have to keep learning – and I’m trying to be grateful for that, too.

        1. I do get tired of learning all day, sometimes. I’ve cut down on the number of documentaries I watch – it’s no way to relax. And those technology snafus are horrendous time-wasters.

        2. Yes! I always say that you can tell *when* someone learned to type by the way they use the keyboard! I still hit them hard … It’s just a soul-satisfying sound. 🙂

          Oh! And my 20-something co-workers get a kick about me using a 12-digit calculator. I can use it without having to think about what I’m doing. I tried to balance my checkbook with an online calculator (once). Almost bounced a check! 🙂 (or a payment, not an actual check).

  15. It’s just disappointing, then, that competence porn seems unpopular on TV now. I’ve had to go to anime to get my fix of it this year.

  16. I’m coming in very late and from an odd angle. Y’see, I object to your usage of the word “porn.” You seem to be using it in a positive way (“thrill”) where all my experience, all my expectations with regard to that word are , if not negative, at least less positive. I once belonged to a newsgroup where we debated the differences betwwen rhe labels “porn” and “erotica” and “adult literature,” and I discovered that what I didn’t like was labels. But labels exist, and certain labels have connotations. I don’t think porn’s connotations fit with the tenor of your post.

    David Weber and David Drake and even Lois Bujold write Military Science Fiction (MILSF). Weber defines military porn as those stories where it’s very easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the good guys never lose and are seldom killed or wounded. (I’d just call that bad writing.)

    Sex porn is that drek where the women are always willing (or if initially reluctant, are enthusiastic against there initial will), where the men are always ready, and heroically proportioned, where orgasms are always mutual and multiple and every technique is followed every time.

    So, when you bring up competence porn, I expect the competence(s) to be always there without effort, never failing, et cetera.

    Is that the kind of porn you had in mind?

  17. I think the usage of the “porn” suffix is meaningful.

    For me, the connotation is that when “X porn” is used, then X is not a bonus, it’s the main dish. In Food Porn, the final product is the focus, whereas in Cooking Porn, the techniques involved to make the food is the focus instead.

    There are Batman stories that are not competence porn, perhaps because the focus is on the noir aesthetic, or it’s all about the introspective character study. But a story where the main appeal is how Batman is good at figuring out the bad guy’s plan and then foiling it? Competence porn.

    There are military action films where everything goes to hell in a handbasket. There are military action films where Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together. The latter is competence porn, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with The A-Team.

    1. Why must it be porn? Why not competence fiction? Competence Adventure? (Although, I might agree that A-Team was milporn.) Are we trying to rehabilitate porn’s image?

      I wrote some food porn, once. You’d laugh. Really. Imagine a discotheque called, “The Mixing Bowl.” It went downhill from there.

      1. Because the primary appeal point isn’t the narrative in “X porn”. We don’t really care about the A-team’s season arc, we care about the heists they pull. Character and narrative are bonus pleasures.

        Secondly, the connotation of porn is a sense of indulgence, of an amount of excess. The purpose of porn is pleasure. Insight porn might make you think, but usually in a manner that brings you pleasure, rather than stress by challenging your preconceived notions. “Writing porn” makes you feel pleasure at the clever little writing techniques packed into the piece (fiction or nonfiction), but doesn’t make you uncomfortable for pioneering a new style of writing you don’t currently jive with. Food porn, by definition, cannot be an acquired taste. It must be something that looks appealing right off the bat.

        Competence fiction could be for a very depressing story, and so not porn.


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