Naftali Harris

Incompetence as Encouragement

February 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was looking for a good python package that could convert user-written strings into numbers. I thought for sure a ton of people would have done this, but I was actually unable to find any package that had the quality and functionality that I wanted. So I wrote a package myself, which I'm calling numutil. As I was looking for a pre-written package, I was surprised to discover that one of the packages I had considered not up to the task was available on pypi, so that you could install it with the vaunted easy_install or pip.

This got me thinking--if anybody can put their shitty package up on pypi, then there's nobody to stop me from putting my not-so-shitty package up there as well. So I did--and now you can install numutil with

$ sudo easy_install numutil

I think this episode illustrates nicely one of the reactions you can have to seeing incompetence around you. If you think that the world is basically a meritocracy, as I do, then seeing successful incompetents is actually very encouraging. Have you ever seen a startup with the world's stupidest idea raise millions of dollars? Well if you have an actually decent idea, then it will be even easier for you to raise millions as well. How many terrible papers do you know that still managed to get published in good journals? Well if you write an even okay paper, then you can publish it in a journal at least as good.

The world is a remarkably robust place in that it can tolerate a staggering amount of incompetence and still continue to run. Rather than be discouraged by the successful incompetents you see, you should be excited about the even greater success you can have by being merely competent.

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