Useless Skills

Yesterday my son and his friend found themselves heading over some Potomac river rapids that they weren’t prepared to handle. They were each in a little inflatable raft with a paddle when they hit a drop. My son bounced through okay, but his friend was tossed from his raft and for a breathtaking moment was underneath it in the churning current and rocks. He kept his cool, popped up, and swam his way safely to a boulder in the river. My son saw his buddy on the rock, swung his raft around with his paddle, and drove his way upstream to go get him. They rode triumphantly down the rest of the section of river together in a single raft. They have a story to tell now, those boys, joined by a jolt of fear and mutual reliance.

My second thought, when I caught up to the two later downstream, was: I’m glad my kid knows how to use a paddle.  (My first thought was what the hell was I doing, letting 10-year-olds go down rapids under their own power?) My son knows how to handle boats because he has had the opportunity, mostly, and because he is a water creature by nature. But boat handling wasn’t something I set out to teach him as a life skill, the way I have set out to teach him to read and clean a bathroom and eat his vegetables. Boats and water are a joy to him, and so he has learned to handle them. And when the time came, he had the skill to offer a useful service to a friend.

There are skills we practice at work and at play just because they give us joy. Messing about in boats can seem useless, until your friend needs a ride. Playing with images with a photo editor can seem useless until the boss needs graphics for the proposal due in an hour. Taking a course on climate change can seem useless until the manager is looking for someone with knowledge and passion for the subject. We can’t follow our bliss all the time. That shouldn’t mean that we don’t follow our bliss some of the time, though, even at work.

It doesn’t hurt to get known for your bliss, either. Sure, you could hide your secret obsession with bike helmets, or presentation software, or (ahem) management practice, but if people know about your obsessions and interests they can recruit you to indulge them officially. Then they become not just your own weird side gig, but valuable skills the organization can use when the need arises.

We need space and time to develop these side skills, these interests that start off as personal joy and end up as organizational strengths. No one is going to assign us a task like “follow your bliss for an hour a day” – although Google famously has had a policy encouraging people to spend 20% of their time pursuing their own ideas, so it isn’t ludicrous.  But we can do things like showing enthusiasm for a colleague’s side interest, or enrolling in classes that are a bit out of our wheelhouse, or allowing each other a little bit of flexibility to spend more time than necessary on a task to try it a new way.

This exploration is how an organization grows in new and unexpected directions: someone says “I have an idea,” or an opportunity comes up and someone says “hey, I know how to do that.” Because you never know – that offbeat skill just might be the one that gets you off the rock in the middle of the river.

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