Is it Worthwhile to Learn a Useless Skill?

Confused man

A few months ago I was facilitating a conversation with a group of CLOs (Chief Learning Officers) and two got in to an almost-heated discussion about the “worthiness” of learning to drive a stick-shift vehicle. The conversation started around the premise of the demise of thinking skills and one attendee postulated that society’s ability to think for itself has been comprised by things that make life easier and allow us to be on “auto-pilot.” The example he gave was of his son who was just learning to drive and refused to learn to drive a stick shift. The son’s argument was that it was a useless skill. In fact, he argued that learning to drive at all might be a useless skill given the numerous alternatives (right now limited to on-demand car services, but soon to be enhanced by self-driving and autonomous vehicles).

When my children were in elementary school we lost power one day. My daughter looked at the microwave and stove and finally asked “what time is it?” I slowly and incredulously pointed to the clock on the wall, over my head, and she said “I don’t know how to tell time on that.” Did she think it was hanging there as decor, I wonder? There is one “level” of utility in knowing it is 2:10, but an entirely different level of utility in knowing where 2:10 occurs in the “space” of a 12-hour time-frame. (And also, how is it possible I didn’t teach her to read a clock?!)

One of my own favorite articles is one I wrote a few years ago about the over-reliance (in my opinion) on GPS devises and how they not only can get you in to trouble (go ahead and Google “GPS Fail”) but also how they are a great example of how people are developing an inability to think. Personally, I have a certain level of self-confidence because I can read a map but… do they make maps anymore? And if yes, why? Maps have gone the way of the Encyclopedia Britannica, have they not? By the time they are published they are obsolete, and they don’t provide the “added value” of alerting you to a traffic-jam up ahead. So perhaps the key word here is obsolete.

“Useless” might be a matter of personal need but obsolete changes the need to learn. Recently I was talking with another consultant about this idea and he suggested that a skill is not useless if the learning is transferable. He offered up the example of learning Latin – even though no one speaks it – as helpful in understanding grammar and other languages. So perhaps learning to drive a stick-shift is important in understanding how an engine works, and reading a map is useful in understanding space and time and distance. But parallel parking will become obsolete soon (some vehicle manufacturers are already making cars that can do the job for you) as will thousands of other skills replaced by technology or artificial intelligence.

So I’m putting it out there for discussion: Is it worthwhile to learn a skill that is useless at face-value but may hold the key to deeper understanding in other areas?