Competence versus self-determination

Competence and self-determination fit neatly into the two ways we can pay attention.

A rock climber who is scaling a vertical face goes into flow and her whole focus is on finding hand holes and foot holes that will support her climb. To do this she uses the “seeking the familiar” form of attention, her mind is seeking, judging and assessing – does this rock protuberance look like something that will support my weight, based on all my experience with bits of rock that looked like this.

After a two hour climb the climber is rapt with their display of competence.

A young researcher striving to solve a complex problem goes to various places to find ideas and thoughts – to books, online searches, advice of colleagues, experts in the field. To do this she uses the “seeking the new (or different)” form of attention – her mind is open to some comment or thought or reference that might shed new light on the problem as well as recognising that she needs to take in as wide a range of new thoughts and ideas as possible – even those that don’t immediately resonate – to allow her mind to make the deeper connections that might only emerge days later, but are often the keys to a solution.



Our researcher is aware and self-determining, excited by the chase, unsure where it may lead but highly motivated to find a solution to her problem. Once found she will be rapt with her display of self-determination.

Our education systems’ bias towards the “seeking the familiar” form of attention with its focus on memorisation and procedural repetition as the mainstays of explicit instruction can build competence in a range of areas but at the expense of higher levels of awareness, self-determination and intrinsic motivation.

Yet, it is exactly these last three things that we need to face up to an uncertain future.

We need a better balance.

John Corrigan is an expert in helping individuals to bring their whole of mind to their daily life and increase their effectiveness and the effectiveness of those around them. This expertise scales from the individual to the team to the organisation. At the core of this work is the practice of encounter.

John Corrigan