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Whatever happened to perfecting a skill for the sheer fun of it? Add to ...

These days we’re obsessed with self-improvement – note the recent New York magazine “Self-Help” issue, the swell of self-help literature on bestseller lists. We are time-strapped and want to maximize our free hours with activities that make us smarter, slimmer, more accomplished, more efficient and so on. Obviously the desire to better oneself in such overt ways isn’t a bad thing, but on the flip side, all of this Tao-of-Me time doesn’t leave much room for what your grandmother might have called flights of fancy. Seriously – when was the last time you pursued something that wasn’t meant to improve the value of your personal stock? And for that matter, is there even a skill out there that can be categorized as totally useless? Burping the alphabet comes to mind, though I imagine that might come in handy if your goal is to clear a room.

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For this week’s challenge, I decided to spend time developing a talent that was seemingly pointless, and asked friends what useless skills they would most like to acquire. One said learning Latin, though I would argue fluency in an ancient tongue is highly useful when trying to impress fellow eggheads and/or kick butt at Jeopardy. Another said learning to tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue. One friend revealed she can fit her entire remote control in her mouth, which is hilarious and definitely useless, but a talent? I’m not so sure.

Get crackin’

I settled on learning how to juggle, mostly because a trio of very pretty beanbag balls showed up in my living room over the holidays. I have no idea how they got there, but as de facto owner I figured I should know how to use them. I also decided to learn how to crack an egg with one hand because 1) I was dazzled 20 years ago when Tony Danza did it on Who’s the Boss? and, 2) I wanted a back-up skill in case the whole juggling thing went south.

Both projects were approached in the same way: Seek instructional video on YouTube, then spend a couple of days doing the “practice exercises,” which turned out to be a fun and relaxing break in my work day. Obviously, I wanted to be a successful juggler and/or one-handed-egg-cracker, but the fact that I was working toward these goals purely for self-satisfaction meant no pressure – no boss cracking the whip or nosy co-worker monitoring my progress. And, of course, there was that fist-pump feeling that accompanied even the smallest victories.

Juggling is a journey

Bryan Smale is a professor of leisure studies at the University of Waterloo and the director of last year’s Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which examined the different factors that contribute to a person’s overall happiness and satisfaction. The study revealed that Canadians’ overall happiness has been in decline; one of the key reasons is a corresponding decline in the time we devote to leisure. “People seem to think that everything we do needs to be utilitarian, which is not the case,” Dr. Smale told me.

Not surprisingly, he objects to the term “useless skill” altogether, since whenever we devote time and effort to a project, we are likely to experience satisfaction, gratification and other benefits such as stress relief and relaxation. In the long term, keeping up so-called pointless pursuits (whether a hobby like juggling or a skill like egg-cracking) can also help fend off mental deterioration and depression. After a few days’ practice, I am an accomplished egg-cracker and a master juggler-in-training. I have always been fond of Emerson’s quote about how life is about the journey not the destination. He was probably a juggler too.

The next challenge: According to new research, sitting is the new smoking, as far as overall health effects are concerned. Stop the sedentary cycle and stand up – walk around, take the stairs or try standing at your computer for a couple of hours. Let us know how you fare at fb.me/globelifestream

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