my husband and his college friends used to swap useless skills. at the time i thought that this was silly. i have always prided myself on my seriousness and don’t often make time for “uselessness”...no matter the form. they, however, loved to spend time together discovering new and unique ways to build their connections. they flipped bottle caps in a bizarre way, rolled magazine pages into tight tiny cones to blow out of pvc tubes, and debated all manner of topics to pass the time. over the years these skills have come quite in handy as my husband has entertained countless throngs of kids at our home and have been the framework for a strong scaffolding with these five friends.
come to find out, useless skills are so not useless. they serve, in fact, to connect us which is useful in every way.
my greatest useless skill is this: i know the michael jackson thriller dance. i learned it in college to perform it at a lip synch my senior year. my roommate, her twin sister and i spent hours in the basement of our dorm rehearsing. when i think back on it i’m not sure how i learned it. those were the days before everyone owned vhs machines. mtv was relatively new and there was no cable access on campus. regardless of how i learned it,however, i learned it well and it will never leave my mind.
every once in a while this completely useless skill turns out to be a blessing in disguise. a few years ago i picked my son up late from school and found him in his biology teacher’s classroom with ten other students ranging from freshman to senior. they had moved the tables to clear the center of the room and had thriller playing on the smart board. they were trying to learn the dance. one thing led to another and i spent the next two weeks making connections as i taught them how to spin and shrug and squeal like m.j. the biology teacher and myself became very good friends. later that year i taught the mr. westside contestants so they could perform at homecoming. i was invited to all of their graduation parties and have maintained connection. this past school year i received a phone call from my daughter’s life long bff asking if i’d come teach it to the concert choir at her school. this brought me a whole new cadre of high schoolers to greet at the store and around town.
who knew that my silly and useless skill could give me an opportunity to engage with a generation of folks not my own? who knew that it would give me a chance to laugh and bond and make a genuine connection with people i otherwise would not have known or encountered? i certainly didn’t.
research and social commentary posit that, within our social networks we connect most frequently with the people we see most often in our everyday real lives. further, as our social networking connection with these individuals increases, the actual time we spend with them face to face decreases. it seems that, while our social networks may be large, they may also predispose us to spend less time actually with people.
as this face to face time decreases, as our social practice and conversational skills decline, i beg of you to reach into the recesses of your mind and body and find some useless skills to put on loan.
do you juggle? can you fix a car? can you blow a double bubble? do you make the perfect apple cobbler? is your ice cream maker gathering dust in your attic? is embroidery your hobby, or stamp collecting, or are your old hot wheels rusting in the garage? do you know a silly song or a classic poem? have you an old appliance or tool that others of us have never seen? can you paint? sketch? play the harmonica?
do you have an aunt in a retirement home, a neighborhood school that could use a volunteer, or a church/synagogue/mosque with a social committee that might need an extra hand for a project? is there a children’s hospital in your town or a neighbor or a long lost friend you haven’t connected with recently? are you waiting in line with someone? have you ended up with a person you don’t know at your volunteer opportunity this week? are you swinging on the swing next to a new to you face? there must be some way to make some connections with people outside of your normal circles.
i find that we stop ourselves from these kinds of encounters for fear of seeming odd or being laughed at or, worse still, rejected. we tell ourselves we don’t have the time, we’re over committed, over booked. we are certain that no one else would be interested in whatever mundane skill we have to offer. the reality is, however, that this need not be a huge investment of self or time or skill to be meaningful. the sharing or passing on of your useless skill might take place in an instant. it might take 10 minutes. it isn’t necessarily the depth of the encounter that counts here, it’s the risks you take in initiating it. it’s the instant where you say, “i’d like to share something with you and if you’re interested, i’ll teach it to you.” it’s saying, “real life connections matter...even though i’m far more comfortable living with the digital ones available to me on my phone.”
what you may consider useless, common place, average, or normal is likely anything but. we all benefit from encountering each other. those encounters are more meaningful when we leave them having learned from one another. even if it’s a useless skill or treasure or insight or laugh. risking connection in real time and space is a skill and it is never useless.