How to Achieve Professional Happiness Through “Creative Incompetence”: A Corollary to the Famous “Peter Principle”

In 1969, Lau­rence J. Peters, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, pub­lished the best­selling book, The Peter Prin­ci­ple: Why Things Always Go Wrong, where he advanced this the­o­ry: “In a hier­ar­chy every employ­ee tends to rise to his lev­el of incom­pe­tence … in time every post tends to be occu­pied by an employ­ee who is incom­pe­tent to car­ry out its duties.” Mean­while, the real work gets “accom­plished by those employ­ees who have not yet reached their lev­el of incom­pe­tence.”

Above, Adam West­brook offers a short intro­duc­tion to “The Peter Prin­ci­ple” and its corol­lary, the con­cept of “cre­ative incom­pe­tence.” If you take “The Peter Prin­ci­ple” seri­ous­ly, you’ll know that not all pro­mo­tions are good ones. As you move upward, you might find that you’re deal­ing with more headaches .… and less work that you tru­ly enjoy. To pre­empt the bad pro­mo­tion, Peters sug­gest­ed (some­what light-heart­ed­ly) engag­ing in some “cre­ative incompetence”–that is, cre­at­ing “the impres­sion that you have already reached your lev­el of incom­pe­tence. Cre­ative incom­pe­tence will achieve the best results if you choose an area of incom­pe­tence which does not direct­ly hin­der you in car­ry­ing out the main duties of your present posi­tion.” In short, find the job you real­ly like, do it well, but give your boss the occa­sion­al odd­ball rea­son not to mess with a good thing.

Got exam­ples of your own cre­ative incom­pe­tence to rec­om­mend? Feel free to add them in the com­ments below.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

150 Free Online Busi­ness Cours­es

Hunter S. Thompson’s Ball­sy & Hilar­i­ous Job Appli­ca­tion Let­ter (1958)

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

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  • Frank S. says:

    This sounds an awful lot like Going Galt after Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” where the peo­ple that work the hard­est and care the most stop doing it because they’re tired of car­ry­ing every­one else on their backs.

  • Jr says:

    Great con­cept. I’ve actu­al­ly nev­er heard of this the­o­ry till now. I’ve appar­ent­ly been lost in the fog for years as to why some peo­ple just can’t do their jobs! This is why… they’re tac­ti­cal­ly manu­ver­ing to stay under the radar. I’m curi­ous to know if I am capa­ble of per­form­ing this. I’m the one that actu­al­ly does their job, and does it well. I repeat­ed­ly find myself unfull­filled and mis­er­able due to being over­worked, unappreciated,and under paid.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.