Why Useless Skills Matter

Korean street at night.

“Why would you bother to learn Korean? You’ll never use it when you leave here, it’s a useless skill.”

When I heard these words, I rolled my eyes and thought the speaker had had too much soju. Later, though, I realized his attitude was a fairly common one. Many people see learning things like Korean, falconry, card tricks, and origami as investing time in useless skills.

I’m not sure how this idea began to spread, but I think this attitude springs from two causes. One, a belief that a person should only learn and study things that will help them make more money; two, that work is something  that must be done and shouldn’t be fun.

When people talk about useless skills, I like to ask two questions: who defines useless, and who defines should?

Maybe this attitude is an Appalachian or North American thing, a holdover from my (our) immigrant ancestors’ grim-faced work ethic. Whatever the reason, I would argue that so-called useless skills are actually worth the time invested in them. Here’s why:

Useless skills help develop soft skills

How many piano students will go on to become a Beethoven or a Tom Waits? Few, if any. Does that mean piano lessons are useless? Hell, no. Besides the sheer joy of creating music, piano lessons teach soft skills like focus and discipline. Scales take repetition, time with the metronome. Learning a piece requires combining a broad base of skills- music reading (essentially a second language), kinesthetic coordination, memory recall, and emotional expressiveness.

What about a 15-year old kid who leads nightly raids in World of Warcraft? Leadership skills, anyone? Quick thinking and decision making? (Here’s an article from Wired about exactly this).

Useless skills help you entertain yourself.

A simple question: do you want to be entertained or do you want to entertain yourself?

We need to make a distinction between useless skills and useless knowledge. Knowing how to do ten card tricks, that’s a skill, but knowing the ten different classes of spaceships in Starfleet is not a skill, that’s useless knowledge. When I say skills, I mean things you can do to entertain yourself and others.

Two guys, same age, social class, social skills, walk into a party. One spends his free time watching television, the other rides and tweaks unicycles. At the party, music is playing, people are dancing, a beach ball is bouncing around, but there’s no unicycle around.

All things considered, who do you think is going to have more fun? The guy who expects to be passively entertained, or the one who finds amusement by investing his time in an admittedly ludicrous invention?

Imagine what happens if he brings his unicycle…

Useless skills help you distinguish yourself.

Finally, when people ask what you do for fun, what do you tell them? I’m not saying social validation is that important, but try to see yourself through the eyes of others. What do they (and you) see? Do they see someone with vivacity and varied interests, unique among millions? If people talk about you, what do they say? When people talk with you, what do they think?

“I spent four hours drinking beer and updating my facebook.” Lame. Anybody can do that.

“I write blog posts.” Slightly less lame, depends on the topic. Possibly an unrepentant narcissistic know-it-all.

“I make man purses from the pelts of ice bears, can speak Swahili, and I’m training for a regional Jenga championship.” Holy f%#king s%^t, can I buy you a beer?”

Useless skills make life richer, adding to our experience. Besides that, they’re fun. Kurt Vonnegut once said “we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” I agree.

As for me, I use my caveman-level Korean everyday. Just a couple hours ago I tried on a shirt, but it was too tight. In Korean I told the guy I drank too much beer and needed to lose some belly fat. He laughed (at me, I think, not with me).

Our exchange was meaningless but was hell of a lot of fun. I’ve been glowing with a misplaced sense of accomplishment all evening.

What about you? What useless skills do you have? The more ‘useless’ the better.

Image courtesy: doegox

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Allen Taylor August 20, 2009, 9:16 am

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

  • whimsicism January 6, 2010, 3:14 am

    My favourite “useless skill”: playing the piano. Considering my age and the amount of time that I’d already been playing for, my skill level is atrocious. I only enjoy it more as time passes though… especially as I’ve been playing enough to improve more quickly these days.

    Speaking of metronomes, I hate the sound. It just irritates the hell out of me for some reason.

    Useless information is never useless. “Useful” information often isn’t of much use either. For example, for GCSE ‘O’ levels, I take around eight subjects, but in all honesty, I can’t foresee being able to actually utilise any of them besides the languages (unless I end up as a teacher or a scientist, which is unlikely). Can most people honestly say that learning most mathematical topics are useful? It seems to me that the computer does most of the calculating anyway.

    I’m reading some of your posts now to umm… improve my writing. It’s not procrastination, really…

  • Rei July 17, 2010, 10:25 am

    I’ve been getting depressed because all my skills are “useless skills”. My mum and me just had a talk, and she is pissed off because I can’t find a job, but I can’t do anything about it because the only things I am good at, people appreciate or say “wow wish I could do that”, then when I need a job no one wants me because my skills don’t fit with any jobs.
    If you’re wondering, my skills include, the imaginative writing that I have wanted to publish since I was a little girl, but I can’t live on that because it’s not a certainty, singing, which is so difficult to make a profit out of unless you get on X-factor, which I refuse to go on, and drawing manga, which is also and uncertainty, (plus it isn’t particularly good manga, but it’s improving fast).
    Just really needed to get that out of my system, but would love if someone had some advice… please?

  • DarkCore09 September 23, 2010, 11:32 pm

    “Holy f%#king s%^t, can I buy you a beer?” lolz

    I know english and a few japanese (my native is spanish)
    Playing Touhou is a useless skill? >_<
    umm… I like a lot RPG Maker too

  • guest June 26, 2011, 8:10 am

    awesome post. this was a great inspiration for me!