Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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In Defense of Being Useless (Part 1 of 3)

July 6th, 2007 · No Comments

DJ1.0, Contributing EditorDJ1.0 is a contributing editor of TechDarkSide.com. We don’t know much about DJ1.0, since he participates in the dark side anonymously. We suspect DJ1.0 is a “he” since he refers to a wife in an early post, but then again, maybe they’re from Massachusetts… Either way, you can reach DJ1.0 at dj10@techdarkside.com.

Some people say I have a lot of skills. I prefer the term “mad skillz” – with a ‘z’ not an ‘s’ (or should I say with a 0x7A, not an 0x73.) Some people add the adjective “useless” before the skills part as a kind of modifier / insult. They could not be more wrong.

Let it be know, that if aliens invade Earth and the only way to defeat them is by writing a virus in Forth, then I’m your guy. If they can be chased away by reciting all the words to every Run DMC song, then I would be proud to serve. If, on the other hand, they can be scared away only by someone starting a fire with only two sticks, then we are all doomed.

You see, I’ve never had to start a fire – at least not with sticks. But, if by fire you mean pressing start on a microwave, then I am practically Charlene McGee. (Esoteric references that only make sense to six people is another “useless” skill of mine) Nor can I grow food. I rely on the skilled farmers who work at Krogers. These farmers can grow 2 ounces of cookies wrapped in three and half pounds of plastic. Now that’s a skill.

If the Russians invaded my high school and I was forced to fight hand-to-hand along side the Wolverines, the Russians would pretty safe – unless the Russians were dressed as ducks and I had a light-emitting gun from Nintendo. If the Russians were falling from the sky leaving trails of color and all I had was a trackball and a red button, I could protect us. Other than that my skills would be “useless”
The other time “useless” is used is when it refers to knowledge. People often lament the “useless” trivia that pollutes their head. For some reason, I still know the square root of 8 to the 11th place. (2.82842712475) and every movie Gary Coleman has ever been in. (There are eight, including the tour de force titled “On the Right Track.”) As much as I would like to garbage collect this information, doing so would be a mistake.

I bring all this all up to hopefully trigger what is a normal human reaction. The normal reaction is to simply reject the value in any of this stuff. It is normal to simply discount some skills and knowledge as useless and then (in some tiny way) also discount the person.

The point is not that every skill is valuable all the time. The obvious point is that we tend to quickly discount and dismiss other people’s contributions if they don’t look like ours. Not to sound preachy, but when you don’t care about someone – they can usually tell. Humans are highly sensitive to this kind of thing. We have more facial muscles than any other animal for a reason. Because we have evolved to pick up tiny subtle signals that you aren’t even aware you’re sending. More importantly, looking passed someone’s potential contribution is an almost guaranteed way to miss out and underdeliver.

Good thing Beethoven’s mom didn’t tell him to stop making all that racket and go out and play with the other kids. Lance Armstrong rode a bike and later becomes a beacon of hope for cancer survivors and funding windfall for research. Bobby Fischer played a board game and became a symbol of American creativity, passion and strength against Russia during the Cold War.

There are many ways in which our skills can be used beyond the obvious. There are many skills that we discount everyday taht could – if utitlized – greatly improve our delivery. Appreciating these can go a long way towards building a more robust, creative and agile team. In my next post, I will describe some of these and discuss how we can incorporate them into IT.

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