The Dangers of Competence

So the meme on this post might be a little over-the-top, but I think it connects to the central idea. Recently I read an article about pre-attack indicators written by a very well known and respected trainer in the self-defense and firearms industries. Let me preface things by saying that I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the work this guy does, and this is in no way an attempt to undermine or discredit him. He is collectively respected for good reason, and his knowledge and skill set certainly dwarfs mine. It was actually for these reasons specifically I was prompted to rant about this particular topic, which is: the potential dangers of being legitimately competent.

As I said, the aforementioned article was about pre-incident indicators. In it he recounted a story about when he was vacationing abroad with is girlfriend. The story went that while visiting a foreign metropolitan area, they had drawn the attention of a group of predatory criminals. Being very familiar with the dynamics of that situation he was able to pick up very quickly on all the predatory behaviors and signals. What I found interesting was that once he had confirmed that he was indeed being followed by a coordinated group, he began prepping combative counter-measures. Now granted this does make sense. What was striking was that as the criminals were starting to press in, he stayed committed to a physical response. As he readied his knife and maneuvered himself between his girlfriend and the threats, she says, “Hey let’s check out this restaurant.” and pulls him into an eating establishment that they were passing. Despite all his knowledge about self-defense situations, his first instinct was to prepare to fight instead of look for non-physical means of escape or diffusion. It was his girlfriend who chose the reaction that he himself would probably have advocated to a student if they were in his position. Now obviously I wasn’t there so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I think it’s interesting that his girlfriend (who is ostensibly the lesser trained of the pair) is the one who chose the smarter counter measure. Ducking off the street into an open business establishment is a great way to deter in this case. Going into a storefront or restaurant instantly adds witnesses and possibly recording devices like security cameras etc. It also adds physical and contextual barriers. When you enter a new environment the criminals have to cross a new threshold and establish their presence in a new situation. This can help to further reveal criminal indicators and behavior as they try to adjust to the new context without seeming out of place. The fact that he didn’t initiate this move shows some distinct decision making bias. Now as I said this guy is an extremely competent individual and that leads me to the heart of this ramble: competence can potentially make certain options seem more appealing and feasible. I do truly believe that this guy could legit handle several attackers on his own. Still, no matter how proficient you are we all know that’s a gamble that really isn’t worth taking. In spite of this his mind went right to the option of using force, and apparently didn’t fully explore any other options. They say that when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like nails. Now I know this dude has MANY tools in his toolbox other than a hammer. But when your favorite (or perhaps most practiced) tool is a hammer, you still really want everything to be a nail. And I think this is something worth keeping in mind. If you spend the majority of your time training application of force, then it’s natural for that to be your subconscious solution of choice. This motivation becomes further reinforced if the person is legitimately capable of success. Herein lies the danger of being skilled and competent. It becomes easy to logically justify why a more complex or risky solution should be taken. This ties in with why it is so important to train yourself and students that avoiding the situation is ultimately the highest order win. A certain level of myopia begins to occur as your capability rises. As your tools grow in number and sophistication, it’s tempting to come up with solutions that justify their use. We start to think that our countermeasures should be applied in accordance with our increased capacity. It can be difficult to get those less visceral feeling solutions to ingrain as deep as the physical ones, but it is worth taking the time to train them. Granted, this can be very challenging, and I’m currently stewing on more ways to accomplish this (that’s a different rant for the future).

Now again I am not trying to call this guy out on anything. I have been guilty of the same thing in the past. We all are fallible and the amount of internal and external factors at play are vast. This further punctuates the importance of gaining proficiency in de-escalation of both the threat, and (maybe more importantly) yourself. In general, and especially in the moment, it can be hard to remember that the path of least resistance is usually the best route.