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.
If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.
If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!