I remember a particularly frustrating brush with incompetence in my Ph.D. program. The assignment started as just another step in compiling resources for our dissertations. The professor asked us to analyze 10 research papers in our subject of interest. “Look at the citations at the end of each paper. Find the original research. Assess the accuracy of the statements about the original research.” It was a tedious assignment.

“What did you find?” he asked. We each raised a hand, and the story unfolded. “They misrepresented the original findings.” “They exaggerated.” “They made incorrect statements about the original research.” We stared at the professor in dismay as we understood the implications.  We were using these papers to form the foundation of our research, and they were flawed.

In academia, the overt valuation of objectivity in research conflicts with the covert pressure to achieve statistically significant outcomes and publishable papers. Even so, we had trusted the authors to be great researchers and to portray the data accurately. Their incompetence disheartened us.

“So what do we do?” we asked.

Do better,” the professor replied.

I walked into the office of a foot and ankle specialist for a consultation about my foot. As a runner, I wanted the best assessment available, and I was anxious about the medical process.  The person at the desk didn’t greet me, so I sat down and assumed that she would help me after she finished with another customer. I finally walked back to the reception desk and introduced myself. She nodded, but she didn’t say anything. Fast-forward–the theme of the visit was poor organization, poor communication, and poor instructions. The level of incompetence in basic customer service was upsetting.

(Note: Placing an anxious person in an empty white room with no information about what to anticipate is not recommended.)

I walked to my car feeling more anxious than when I arrived. The operational and customer-service systems of this solo practitioner were so bad that I distrusted his intelligence and the validity of his assessment.

Do better,” the voice in my head whispered. I thought about my office procedures. People who work with me expose not only their feet, but their leadership struggles, business concerns, and sensitive team dynamics. The process is familiar to me, but had I done enough to explain it to new clients? Were they comfortable? Had I metaphorically stuck them in a white, empty room with no instructions? “Do better,” the voice whispered again. In the middle of my meltdown, I knew that this experience would make me better for my clients.

Last year, I broke my nose because I was lazy. I didn’t understand the rationale of a specific gym exercise my trainer wanted me to do. He didn’t give me a clear answer about the purpose of the exercise, so I tried to figure it out on my own. I didn’t want him to think that I was high maintenance if I pushed the issue. Even though I teach assertiveness, I didn’t want to engage in social conflict.

Immediately following the broken nose, I saw an ENT doctor. He said that I did not need surgery. I wanted to believe him, so I was cognitively lax, and I didn’t double-check his rationale. Now, I have $10K of surgery and another healing process because I didn’t follow my instincts…twice. I am the incompetent one, and I hate it. Amid my self-flagellation, the tiny voice whispers, “Do better.”

(Note: Tiny organisms called flagellum usually whip their tails back and forth for locomotion. When they get upset, they start hitting themselves. It hurts, but it doesn’t help them move forward. Hence, self-flagellation is not recommended as a success strategy.)

The struggle of coping with incompetence is a recurring theme for both myself and my high-achieving clients. We irrationally expect other people to have the same skill-set as us, and we get frustrated at what we perceive as a failure in “common sense.” We get angry at ourselves when we make mistakes because we know that we have the intelligence to meet our expectations. Our standards are high, and so we are invariably disappointed by the failure of ourselves and others.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, speaks of the degree to which finding meaning in our circumstances can help us survive extreme difficulty. For me, finding meaning always lessens the sting of pain. I figure that if someone can survive Auschwitz with a sense of perspective, then I can figure out how to make meaning from bad office procedures and broken noses.

I don’t know what challenges you face today. You may want to strangle someone for being incompetent. Maybe you are the incompetent one, and you just want to crawl into a corner and hide.

My challenge is this. Instead of stewing in the anger and disappointment of incompetence, learn from it. Use it to fuel your future performance.  Do better.