Competence vs. Credentials

What You Should Really Worry About at Graduation


This past weekend I drove out to a small dusty Guatemalan town on the side of a mountain. I was looking for someone to help me make a series of product prototypes, and rumor had it that this town has excellent craftsmen.

I went to nearly every workshop in the town, asking questions and getting prices. After a few hours, I went to the guy that I thought was the best, signed an agreement, and left a pile of money on his desk.

What did I look for?

  1. How was the work they had on display?
  2. How were their prices?
  3. How much attention did they pay to me, the customer?
  4. But most of all: Did they inspire in me a sense of trust about their work as a craftsman?

At no point did we discuss titles, degrees, alma maters, certifications. extracurricular activities, letters of reference of other supposed staples of career success.

Why not? Because I needed competence — not credentials. Exchanges like this happen millions and probably billions of times each day. Some are small others are worth fortunes. All are opportunities for competent people.

Worry Less About your Degree

Students worry too much about their degree. I know I did. Will it say something cool? Is it from a good enough university? Will people be impressed when they see what I studied?

This is the wrong fear.

Really, students should be scared of graduating while still incompetent.

No one is born productive, organized, and focused. No one wakes up knowing project management or programming or marketing. No one hits their head and suddenly writes like Hemingway. You cultivate competence.

The path to your particular brand of competence depends on your goals. But whatever you want to do, you’ll have to spend a lot of time to grow and become competent.

If you go into a traditional field it’s true that your degree matters somewhat at the start of your career. It’s an expensive signal that you can use to show your conformity to an educational process. This may open some doors. It may gain some trust from certain employers.

But with so many universities selling a near-identical product, no one is going to care where you went to school in the long run. They’re just going to want to see what you’ve achieved, how interesting you are and, most importantly, what you can do to help them.

Anyone that’s worth working with hires based on competence, not credentials. Unless you get tenure at a young age or secure a patronage job with the government, you have to work on being more competent, not necessarily more credentialed.

Ironically, much of traditional education prevents students from becoming competent. Students often learn and live in a state of dependency on professors, protocols, and parents from Kindergarten till they leave graduate school.

These environments don’t often breed competence. They discourage non-conformity and proactive, self-directed behavior (‘rebelliousness’ and highly self-directed actions are often indistinguishable). People competent in the real world aren’t always great at the stifling process of school. People who are competent at school aren’t always so great when they hit the real world.

Universities encourage explicit knowledge — what books have you read, what lectures have you heard, how well can you talk about a subject. But competence demands implicit knowledge — practical skills, intuition, social connections, and good habits like self-discipline and emotional maturity.

So what breeds competence? Surviving the real world. Executing real projects. Cooperating with others. Hunting down opportunities. Learning how to make money. Learning how to learn. Learning how to meet people and be of value to them.

These skills can only be forged in the fires of experience. Certainly, you can read about them. You can have people help you understand them, but they’ll only be grown through practice.

The magic of competence is that real experience will differentiate you from the legions of other college grads with similar titles.

It’s nearly impossible to tell who will be a better fit for an opportunity if everyone looks the same on paper. The only thing the vast mass of grads have to differentiate themselves is the university they attended and the major they studied. Bummer!

Experience that generates competence is how you can avoid looking the same as everybody else.

As graduation approaches in universities across the world, students should consider asking themselves not “Am I well-credentialed?” but “Am I competent?”