The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle goes something like this:

In any heirachy, an individual will rise to his or her own level of incompetence and then remain there.

The idea is that when you perform well in a role you get promoted. This continues until you reach a level where you are no longer perform well so you fail to get promoted and remain at your level of incompetence.


The Peter Principle reflects a view that individuals have an inborn potential. That success in life is limited by factors beyond their control. Of course you might not reach your potential, but your growth is limited by it.

This idea runs counter to everything we now know about success and how it’s achieved. The idea that your intelligence, or your potential is fixed creates a number of myths that I will explore in the next few blog entries. The first of these being what is refered to as the Greatness Gap.

How does this relate to the Habits of Mind? In brief the Peter Principle describes a situation where a person is confronted by challenges, the solution to which is not immediately apparent. The Habits of Mind describe they ways successful people behave when confronted with these sorts of challenges so they can be overcome.

Leave your thoughts and comments below.



  • Me

    Everyone has a limit. The idea that you can always overcome it is untenable. You have genetic limitations. Not everyone will play basketball in the NBA because there are simply not enough available positions for EVERYONE to play. Someone has to fail in this venture, so who fails? In some cases you are correct and the cause is a mental block, but genetic limitations are REAL and you do people a disservice if you attempt to deny reality.

    • James Anderson

      Thanks for your thoughts Zach.
      I point I was trying to make was not that anyone can be anything. Only that there is no point at which you must stop improving. So in that respect you have no limits.
      You’re correct to say there are physical limitations that are genetically determined. However there are no such limits on your cognitive development.
      You’re also correct that you may not ever be a NBL basketball player – for reasons to do with genetics, as well as limited opportunities. However there is no reason you can’t stop becoming a better basketball player than you are today. This work is all about being better than yourself. Not necessarily better than someone else.
      The Peter Principal suggests that there are some roles, tasks, or abilities that you cannot acquire through practice and training. Hence you rise to your level of incompetence and remain there. I would strongly challenge that. As Professor Anders Ericsson points out in his book “Peak” – there is no point at which further practice does not bring about further improvement. (as long as it is what he describes as Deliberate or Purposeful Practice). This is a result of the brain’s plasticity. Unlike your fixed physical characteristics, your brain can continue to grow and respond to change, so you acquire new abilities.

  • Zach

    To make my previous comment less gloomy. Finding your limitations is a part of finding out who you are. It is a positive and not a negative. We build character when we find our limits, and yes occasionally we will rise beyond what we thought our limits were by confronting a challenge and gaining a new skill that allows us to overcome. But don’t fear failure, failure part of being alive.

    • James Anderson

      Hi Zac,
      your view is one that I would recognise as reflective of a fixed mindset. From the perspective that you can’t change very much life is about discovering your limits, and working out who you are. I would contest that view.
      I’d suggest that individuals are capable of very significant, and in fact unlimited, growth. As a result life is not about finding your limits, and discovering who you are. Life is about deciding on the sort of person you want to be, and making yourself into that person.