I have a few beliefs. Things that even if they aren’t true, I wish they were and I try to act accordingly.

Firstly I think competency is a transferable skill. Getting good at one thing, or better yet, many things, makes you better at whatever the next challenge is. Secondly being practical is a virtue. Given time, patience and the willingness to get a few bruises you should be able to do-it-yourself. Thirdly, breadth of experience makes us better people, it builds empathy, understanding and let’s you draw patterns from the chaos of life. Lastly, and something I have to actively practice as a natural computer hermit, is you should try new things. Make plans, have projects, keep momentum in life, compound interest is everywhere.

A short piece of writing that crystallises this outlook and one I have become attached to is by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction author you will know from Starship Troopers. It’s an extract from one of his works and often called The Competent Man, where a character gives a list of requirements:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about it1. I wrote a version for software engineers, applying my polymathematic belief to my job.

So, in order to keep my momentum and stave off boredom, I thought why not go further and try to complete the original competencies. So here we go, a checklist:

:heavy_check_mark: Change a diaper - I have two children
:white_large_square: Plan an invasion
:white_large_square: Butcher a hog
:construction: Conn a ship - Sailing course booked
:white_large_square: Design a building
:heavy_check_mark: Write a sonnet - I’ve made a website for writing poetry: Ode
:white_large_square: Balance accounts
:white_large_square: Build a wall
:white_large_square: Set a bone
:white_large_square: Comfort the dying
:heavy_check_mark: Take orders - I’ve been an employee and written about getting feedback
:heavy_check_mark: Give orders - I’ve been a manager
:white_large_square: Cooperate
:white_large_square: Act alone
:white_large_square: Solve equations
:white_large_square: Analyse a new problem
:white_large_square: Pitch manure
:heavy_check_mark: Program a computer - I’m a software engineer by trade
:heavy_check_mark: Cook a tasty meal - I’ve cooked Christmas dinner for 12 with all the trimmings2
:white_large_square: Fight efficiently
:white_large_square: Die gallantly

What’s next?

I have a 4-day sailing course booked that promises: “once completed you will have the basic knowledge to hire or sail your own boat without an instructor onboard”. That should tick off ‘Conn a ship’.

Some will prove more tricky than others. Comfort the dying and dying gallantly both will (hopefully!) require some nuanced interpretation. I’d also like to think up some totemic examples for the seemingly low hanging fruit of cooperate-style traits.

I’m on 6/21. Decent start.


  1. I’m an absolute sucker for the Competence Porn trope. West Wing, House, M.D., Apollo 13, James Bond, Ocean’s Eleven. 

  2. Necessary trimmings include yorkshire puddings, bread sauce, pigs in blankets and of course little paper crowns.