As I recall, the thesis of the one-time Best Seller The Peter Principle was that everyone rises to the level of their own incompetence. Although I agree with the principle… in ”Principle”… I believe that its hypothesis needs to be scrupulously clarified. Or is it scrupulously qualified – I am not at the moment sure which. Maybe I will figure it out along the way. Or I’ll forget about it and simply heedlessly forge ahead.
The importance of this clarification, or is it qualification… well, in the grand scheme of things, it is, in truth, not particularly important at all. Except today at least, to me, where the situation seems “urgent”, and I feel the need to alleviate the pressure.
For no reason I can immediately comprehend, I suddenly find it essential to describe to you one possible interpretation of The Peter Principle explaining why I failed – which I shall argue today is an inaccurate one – rigorously distinguishing it from the way I actually did fail.
By illuminating this delicate distinction, I shall achieve my intended objective, which is, as usual, to make myself feel better. I will do that by losing your respect for me in the way that is appropriate for you to lose your respect for me, and not in a way that is not.
The point is, I do not want you to believe I messed up the wrong way. That’s worth a morning of hard work, isn’t it?
Let’s get right to it.
“And not a moment too soon.”
Thumbnail Career Summary:
I started out as a television scriptwriter, rising through reputation and opportunity to the level of “Show Runner”, at which point I failed.
How’s that for covering more than thirty years in… let’s see…twenty-three words? Call me “Mr. Succinctness.”
My progressively-upward-to-final-“flameout” career trajectory seems to provide a confirming substantiation for The Peter Principle philosophy – I had risen to the level of my incompetence, and then fizzled right out.
Herein, argues the writer, lies the significant distinction.
Consider the figure skater.
“That’s a leap.”
Or at least a twirl.
The aspiring championship figure skater, working their way up the ranks, practicing a punishing number of hours a day, polishing their “moves”, culminating in the always crowd-pleasing “Triple Lutz”, where you jump up in the air, spin around three times, and then “stick” the landing, earning a “Ten” from the judges unless they hate your country and then it’s a “Four.”
You practice the “Triple” till your ankles bleed – or whatever signifies you’ve been practicing an excruciatingly long time – and you consistently “nail it”. You are now
a thoroughly reliable “Triple Lutzer.”
What do you inevitably try next?
The “Quadruple Lutz.”
With the “Triple” comfortably under your belt, you further challenge yourself by adding a seemingly impossible supplemental “Lutz.”
But as hard as you try, and as long as you practice…
You frustratingly cannot pull it off.
Continually falling in your tight-fitting, sequined costume. (Imagining, incorrectly since nobody practices in their costume but I am keeping it in anyway for the sake of this delicious visual – an intensely dedicated figure skater repeatedly hitting the unyielding ice, generating a series of sequin-shaped dents to their posterior and an accompanying “Ow!”)
Et voila – we have The Peter Principle, to idealized perfection.
The talented figure skater has risen to the level of their incompetence. The “Triple Lutz” – it was “automatic.”
For this unfortunate figure skater, it was agonizingly a “Lutz” too far.
Three “Lutzes” was their absolute limit. One more “Lutz”, and they landed on their sequins.
I did not do that.
My career failure in no way involved a comparable stacking of “Lutzes”, till the tower collapsed under the weight of personal insufficiency.
You write good scripts and you get to write your own pilot. The pilot’s picked up, and you’re a show runner.
The thing is, the bulk of the responsibilities related to being a show runner have virtually nothing to do with your ability to write.
Decisiveness. Institutional organization. Motivation of underlings. Diplomacy. Budgeting of time. Physical endurance. A positive attitude, for God’s sake.
Do you see what I’m saying here?
You’re a great waiter. They have you running the restaurant.
By contrast to the failing figure skater – or the professional juggler, an absolute whiz at keeping five balls in the air, but add a sixth and they are racing around picking them up off the floor – I was the “natural” teacher who was promoted to principal.
Contrary to The Peter Principle’s description, I never rose to the level of my incompetence, as I was never incompetent at what I did.
I was incompetent at what it led to.
“Okay. Do you feel better now?”
But not nearly as much as I thought I would.