“Retreat into Competence” Apprenticeship Pattern

I am writing this blog post about the “Retreat into Competence” apprenticeship pattern from the Apprenticeship Patterns book. To summarize the idea of this pattern, it is about handling being overwhelmed by new challenges. This is something I experience frequently, particularly because I actively search for new challenges and often find ones that are beyond my current ability. The recommended response is to go do something else that is more familiar instead. Succeeding at something familiar and reflecting on past success is comforting in the face of overwhelming ignorance. There are two definitions of the word “overwhelming” that I can imagine here, and the one that this chapter seems to be using is in an emotional sense. Recognizing one’s own incompetence is uncomfortable, so taking a moment to go back and successfully complete a familiar task feels better than struggling with an unfamiliar one. The other definition would be being overwhelmed in the sense of lacking the capacity to complete the given challenge. Retreating into competence is done for the sake of regaining confidence, and it is important to be able to handle being emotionally overwhelmed before trying to handle being academically overwhelmed. I have confidence in myself and my abilities, but when I am challenged by something new, I remain confident in what I know and recognize that it is a challenge because of what I do not know. I was doing a problem recently that required a certain background knowledge of combinatorial game theory that I did not have. Despite my aptitude for problem solving, my lack of education on the matter made the problem challenging (or overwhelming) to the extent that talent would not make up for inexperience. I saw it as a learning opportunity and started researching the information that I was not familiar with, and also did some easier problems instead that did not require a level of education I was lacking. Remaining in one’s own comfort zone is a good thing, but only briefly, as the chapter notes. It is taking a step backwards in order to prepare to continue moving forward and learning.


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