Bad Is Good

One of the ideas I’ve been interested in lately is the idea that you don’t necessarily need to worry about becoming “competent” before you do things, because “incompetence” can be advantageous as well as disadvantageous.

Competence as an unqualified, universal advantage is part of the mythology of our culture. But competence is only ever competence according to a particular standard of measurement, or competence in a particular way of doing things, and sometimes competence itself can get in the way of innovation. You know the “right” and “wrong” ways to do things and you don’t think of doing them the “wrong” way.

Part of the mythology is “you have to learn the rules before you can break them!” That old saw is a bulwark supporting the myth of competence. You see, even if you point out that some great artist or engineer or something doesn’t follow the rules, you can say that he is only allowed to break them because he knew them perfectly first, and therefore knew how to break them.

Except it isn’t true. Some people learn the rules and follow them, some people learn the rules and break them, and some people never learn the rules, they are always making up their own rules all the time, and never necessarily staying with any given set.

I want to start keeping track of instances of “bad is good” — incompetence as an advantage — when I see it. It doesn’t even have to be a matter of competence — I’m interested in situations where something we might think was a disadvantage turned out to be an advantage.

Here’s today’s post on that topic — David Anez apparently created the subgenre of “sprite” webcomics inadvertently.. He wanted to do a traditional drawn webcomic, but did not own a scanner, so he did some temporary filler comics using video game images until he could afford a scanner. Turns out that people liked those comics a lot better than his “real” comics, and there are now many imitators.

I don’t follow any sprite comics, but the large number of people who do suggests to me that there is something to them. Sometimes….. bad is good.

3 thoughts on “Bad Is Good”

  1. Back when my dad used to build/test harddrives for a living, he would say that he always liked to hire at least one really young engineer because they didn’t know what was impossible. I think that’s closely related to what you’re talking about above.

    But it’s also not as black-and-white as all that. In the example with my dad, even a young engineer has a grounding in fundamentals, “you have to learn the rules before you can break them.â€? I see this all the time with people who cook. Sure, if you’re incompetent in the kitchen, you still might hit upon something tasty now and then, but more often you’ll create inedible crap. Or worse, you’ll create inedible crap that can literally kill you.

    In the case of the sprite comic, I’m not sure we can say that Anez lacked competence. He knew about web comics and he had a plan. Technical limitations prevented him from doing what he wanted. I see that ALL the time, where external constraints spur a burst in creativity. Constraints != incompetence.

    There’s got to be a way of expressing the gray area–the balance between competence and cluelessness–that frees people to treasure increased experience while still being free to creative.

  2. I would say that lack of competence at doing something in a particular way *is* a technical limitation. I may be unable to play the guitar like other people because (a) I lack a guitar and can’t afford one, (b) my fingers are crippled from an accident and cannot hit the frets the right way, or (c) I have not spent years learning how. Any one of those three things could drive me to seek alternative solutions to achieve my guitar-music-related goals.

    It’s just that in cases (a) and (b) we usually consider the seeking of alternative solutions to be “creative,” whereas in case (c) we usually consider the seeking of alternative solutions to be “lazy.”

    As for “seeking a gray area” — I would just encourage people to do what they want to do, with whatever skill they currently have, and not worry about who is more or less “competent” than they are. By mindfully engaging themselves people will automatically become “better” in the ways that matter to them, which may or may not be the ways that have traditionally been considered “competent.”

  3. I’m sure you have seen red vs. blue?
    It enjoys some success and uses Halo as the animation.

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