11 Nov In Praise of the Ultra-competent

I was trying to extract a plastic produce bag from its dispenser at the grocery store yesterday — and having a hard time of it, since I was holding a basket in one hand and a bag of potatoes in the other. The dispenser pedastal was wobbling like a dizzy stork. And I had three plastic bags unspooling, unable to get leverage to tear one off. But then the wobbling stopped and the pedastal righted itself abruptly, and I was able, at last, to extricate a single bag. That’s when I noticed that another shopper, nearby, had casually but deliberately put her foot on the base of the dispenser’s pedastal. She had seen my trouble and quietly offered assistance while, at the same time, bagging plums for herself. She didn’t even look my way for a nod of thanks. It was an elegant example of inobtrusive, highly effective multi-tasking and the mark, I decided, of the Ultra-competent.

The Ultra-competent (UC) is detail-oriented, thoroughly organized, and good at doing just about everything. She meets her deadlines with such aplomb, she just might have time enough to do your job too. The world could not run without Ultra-competents. About one of every ten people you meet will be a UC. The rest, well, they might try hard and be well-intentioned but you don’t necssarily want them on your team. The UC, on the other hand, is the one you want at your bedside in the ER — she’ll make sure the nurse don’t give you the wrong pill. She’s the one you want looking after your cats while you’re away on holiday. She’s the designated driver. The finder of the house keys. The one who’s got your back.

The UC is not to be confused with the Perfectionist, who often gets little done because he’s overly careful. Nor is the UC to be confused with the know-it-all, who is a wholly different creature and insufferable. What makes the UC so admirable is that he doesn’t flaunt his abilities. He just does what has to be done. On time. And usually better than anyone else. As a teacher, I love to work with a UC — every classroom has one. I look for UCs to run our university’s literary magazine or head the honor society or organize an awards ceremony. UCs make life easier for everybody because they pick up the slack.

It’s not necessarily fair to let the UC work so hard, but that’s their nature. It’s their mission to make things run right, which is amazing considering how many people strive to make things go wrong. Or just don’t care to make much of anything happen one way or the other.

Sometimes I fancy myself a UC becasue I get a lot done. But then I remind myself that being a UC isn’t just about getting lots done. It’s about taking care of business really well all the time. When I get a lot done, I let a lot go too. I’ll forget to pay bills or I’ll forget a doctor’s appointment or I’ll stop going to the gym. Something’s got to give, in other words. That’s not the hallmark of a UC.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many UCs. I have one in my band. She’s amazing: for every rehearsal, you can count on her to have photocopied music for all the band members and put it into binders — including one in B-flat for the horn players. Once, we went to a gig and couldn’t find parking. The only free spaces were in a lot behind a restaurant that announced parking was for patrons only. So she walked into the restaurant’s kitchen and introduced herself to the chef/owner. He happened to be Italian, so she started talking to him in Italian. Then they had a chummy chat. And, yes, we got free parking.

Everywhere I go, I seek out the UCs and am convinced that there are the primary reason we have civilization as we know it. Look around: there’s a UC nearby. You may be relying on one right now to steady a wobble in your life.