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I think I am incompetent. I've been fired from the last 4 jobs I've held, although in same cases, they said that it was a layoff or they cancelled the contract, so I could collect unemployment. However, I just got fired from a full time job. I taught a class, and at the end of year, my instructor evaluation was not as good as they would have liked. I'm wondering if maybe I should be doing something different.

I'm a linux system administrator and a python programmer (I've also programmed in a lot of other languages over the years, but those skills are "brittle"). I have been working with linux since 1996. I also read a lot, so I know a lot of things from reading, but not actually doing them. I like public speaking, and I have given several presentations in several different contexts and I got a lot of positive feedback from those presentations (which is how I got the teaching job).

In If I am consistently underperforming, how do I know it's time to resign or ask for another assignment/project?, it mentions "If at first you don't succeed, then try, try, try again". That's true in many ways, and persistence is a virtue in many cases. However, when do you say "enough is enough" and go do something else?

And how do you figure out what "something else" is? What if I'm actually incompetent at what I decide to do next, and don't know it.

I am aware of the Dunning–Kruger effect. See Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/teaching/p7536_heurbias/p7536_readings/kruger_dunning.pdf. I'm also aware of the "imposter syndrome". Finally, I am aware of the proverb "know thyself". So I have this vague feeling that I'm utterly clueless at so many levels.

How do I go about testing my competence as a linux system administrator? Is it worthwhile to spend several thousand dollars to take a class in Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and take the test to get certified? I already have a certificate in Python from the University of Washington - is there a way I can my software critiqued so I can learn how to write it better?

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  • Did you get any feedback from your former jobs and did you improve in these areas? For example the teaching job, did they go into more detail than just "not good enough"?
    – nvoigt
    Jun 26, 2016 at 6:29
  • Then you need to find something you're competent at. There's no question here that we can answer. We can't determine whether you're a bad programmer or what you would be good at. We can't make important life choices like a career change for you. You're better off looking for a forum or preferably a trusted friend, not a Q&A site. VTC.
    – Lilienthal
    Jun 26, 2016 at 12:03
  • I'd never put much stock in certifications because they essentially just say, "Well, the applicant isn't totally incompetent." However, if you really do doubt yourself, try to get a couple of certifications in your areas. It will at least be an objective standard to measure yourself by. Jun 27, 2016 at 5:48
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    It sounds like you're assuming incompetence based only on the fact that you lost those jobs. If you are incompetent there should be some specific thing X that you can't do, such that you could say "I can't do X, but a competent professional in my position should be able to do that." Once you know what X is, you can proceed e.g. by learning X or finding positions that don't require X.
    – Brandin
    Jun 27, 2016 at 6:45
  • "So I have this vague feeling that I'm utterly clueless at so many levels." This really sounds like you need some type of mentoring or counseling. Try finding someone who is competent and who you trust (a friend, a paid conselor, professional coach) and talk to them. Also, try talking to (former) colleagues if you have a good relationship, they might be able to give you honest advice. Of course, listen to everything, but don't take everything literally either.
    – sleske
    Jun 27, 2016 at 8:46

3 Answers 3

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My best suggestion if you are really incompetent, or totally insecure and lacking confidence in your skills is to target government jobs, It's easy to get away with being mediocre or worse without worrying about job security too much.

There are a lot of good govt people, but I've always looked at it as a fall back niche for people who have trouble in the private sector. There's much less pressure at lower levels and very little accountability, and it's increasingly difficult to fire or discipline someone. Good speaking skills are very important and you could on those alone rise through the ranks to eventually running a Department.

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  • I have to disagree with this. In the government you are held accountable for your actions. If you are sworn in, that is a little different as you are "in" it until your contract expires but there will be consequences for your inability to perform.
    – Dan
    Jun 27, 2016 at 13:18
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    Sadly while this may come across as sarcastic, it's sound advice. Jun 27, 2016 at 13:28
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    @Dan - I have two buddies both in government jobs. One works in IT and handles ~3 tickets a day. The other works as a software developer, and barely has anything to do, giving him plenty of time to fix errors or research solutions if he really needed to. Very little oversight into job performance. Seems pretty posh to me, and definitely a good job for someone not confident in their skills. However it will differ on where you go.
    – user17163
    Jun 27, 2016 at 14:35
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    @Dan I remember doing a couple of work terms with the provincial department of highways while I was in university. My boss's rule was that you had to be back from coffee minimum 15 minutes before your lunch break. Any place that I've lived government jobs have been incredibly slack.
    – Myles
    Jun 27, 2016 at 20:48
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    Honestly I feel like regardless IT is underrated on a global scale and the government does want to improve, but often also has a lax enough policy to as @Kilisi says cater People who are simple not made for the private sector. My uncle is great at what he does, however he would get fired over and over in the privat sector just because he aint a suit. He would always be the first one to fall of the wagon. Jun 28, 2016 at 9:46
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Hi user (not sure of your name),

Your question is a bit vague.

Normally jobs don't fire for a vague reason like 'overall incompetency'. Were there specific reasons? Did they have to do with coding, or anything else? Deadlines? Code quality? Working within a team?

Also -- do you enjoy being a sysadmin and/or software development? Is it something you still like learning about and problem-solving in? Is there possibly a problem with motivation? Since you entered the field a while ago, do you find you have problems with newer technologies?

I think there's a lot of questions here that you could soul-search with.

And since you're competent enough to recognize that there may be a problem, then I think you are competent enough as a human being in general. I think there just may be more devils in the details...

Otherwise - The first step into "what is that something else" is finding out what you do enjoy. Enjoyment is important - it's what keeps us going when we encounter barriers to learning and mastering a new skill. However, since you have years in this field, I figure that you enjoy it, and there is a lot of experience here that may be valuable. But first, explore if your 'incompetence' is real, or perhaps in your head after a string of bad experiences.

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Great question i must say, well in a lifetime its a prime step to recognize a problem before establishing a solution, for 4 employers in your work history mentioning the same thing is more than judt a coincidence and believe me you will not only be insecure but equally aware of the reason for termination of another contract with your fifth employer. The good news is you have quite a reputation in public speech and the most interesting part is, the society around you and beyond needs your services, its never too late. Its traditional that man has simply failed to establish when enough is really ENOUGH.

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