Competence ≠ Engagement


This past weekend my wife and I had an opportunity to visit with our granddaughters, my son and his wife. Besides seeing my granddaughters, I also had another agenda this trip, doing a little recon on my son’s employment situation. In January, this son, the oldest of my three, was laid off from his position as a project architect at a very large firm in the town where he lives. My own response when I first heard this news was, “Yikes!”

Honestly, I had previously wondered for some time about behaviors my son described relative to his employment situation; among other things, he always left his office at 5:00PM regardless of the workload and he did not take work home on either weeknights or weekends. Being somewhat old-school  myself I was concerned that if push came to shove as it sometimes does he would end up on whatever short list was created for staff reduction if there was an economic crunch that affected his firm. Of course then there was an economic crunch and he was out the proverbial door.

So, Friday afternoon as we sat in his living room, just over eleven months after his last day of work. I was curious about his experience of the process he has been engaged with. Economically he and his wife had made the adjustments necessary quite successfully but I was more concerned about his emotional and psychological state.

My initial questions to my son on Friday had the effect of uncorking a bottle of champagne! He talked virtually non-stop for the next 45 minutes about what a great time he had been having. I was thinking to myself, “Oh dear, this has finally gotten to him.” A few months earlier, back in July to be exact, he had expressed similar enthusiasm but I thought that would have worn off by now as reality set in and anxiety displaced his early bravado. Actually, he is now more excited than ever and while he did admit that there is a certain amount of anxiety he contends with each day it seems to him to be a natural part of the process that he has accepted and appreciates.


Each morning he gets breakfast for both girls while his wife sets off to work. He takes his now five-year-old first daughter to kindergarten each morning and then spends the rest of the time until noon with his one year old who gets dropped off at day care for the afternoon, when he begins “his work.” Right around 5:30PM, everyone comes home and he gets dinner in one form or other.  Since this process began he has applied for and been granted a general contractors license , taken and passed four of the seven exams to be certified as a licensed architect, visited nearly a hundred potential properties for sale, interviewed and made tentative plans with several specialty contractors,  purchased and learned how to use a bidding and planning software package and is nearly complete with a set of prototype plans for a residential multi-family building that he can use to develop bank financing, something he works on at times until 3:00AM, on his own time.

As time has passed since his layoff he has become clearer and clearer that he had wanted to leave his employed situation for quite some time but the pragmatic “I am a father now with responsibilities!”, part of him held him in tow like a “tractor beam” to an employment situation that increasingly offered him little other than financial reward. To be certain he felt as though the experience he had gained in his first few years with this employer had been a valuable apprenticeship. However, for at least the past three years he was increasingly distracted and I noticed him often finding fault with his employer’s decisions and practices. This was something I found strange since the employer had always seemed willing to accommodate his limited work schedule and habit of extending lunch hours so he could visit his daughter in day care. What is the phrase, “Be careful not to bite the hand that feeds you?”

Aaaanyway, this post has gone on a bit too long. Somewhere near the center of this large question we are addressing together is a lesson to be both learned and shared. If we are serious about optimizing the experience of the time of our life, it is insufficient to find something to be involved with where all that is required is our competence. This is not how our self would want to invest if we truly gave it voice. Competence does not necessarily equal engagement. Unfortunately, I fear that this is among the most common of stories we might hear about how many of our children, or perhaps even ourselves, have chosen to spend the productive years we have been given. The net effect is unfortunate to a degree that is almost unimaginable. While it satisfies the basics that Maslow so brilliantly described in his work it inevitably leads us to adopt a certain bitter perspective towards life in general and resentfulness towards others who have made the choice to satisfy their soul as well as their pocketbook. In the end, it also robs our employers of the opportunity to have the most engaged workforce possible, but that is another discussion for another day.



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