Teach Yourself an Arbitrary Skill During Social Distancing

Photo: Alessandro de Leo, Shutterstock
Photo: Alessandro de Leo, Shutterstock

It’s long been my belief that everyone should learn a quirky skill, if not several, to teach themselves to find joy in the arbitrary. There doesn’t need to be a “reason” to be good at anything outside of enjoying that thing, especially if it walks the line between being challenging but possible — just far enough out of your ability that if you reach hard enough, you can do it.

From 2008 to 2010 I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and like many volunteers I found myself alone for long stretches of time, disconnected from friends and family except through an internet connection. It was practice for today’s social distancing before COVID-19 taught us the phrase, and one of my small satisfactions came from learning a frivolous skill: I taught myself to juggle.

We’ve talked about how to teach yourself to juggle before, and while finding professional instruction on learning a new skill can make mastering that skill easier, consider that part of learning something arbitrary is not needing to learn it the “right way” at all. The freedom is in the journey of mastering something your own way and to your own standard. Mine, for example, was to simply keep the balls in the air for one minute. No judgment, no proper form, no instruction; if I kept three balls in the air for one minute, I did it. It was a feeling I had forgotten from being a child, the inherent pleasure of curiosity and subsequent discovery. Can I do it? I bet I could.

Of course, there are benefits to doing arbitrary tricks and challenges that are paired unexpectedly with the experience — imagine learning minesweeper, billiards, morse code, shuffling cards, spinning a yo-yo, solving a Rubik’s cube, or driving a stick shift without an added benefit of coordination, concentration, persistence, or just being a more interesting person — but those outcomes are side effects, not the goal. Learning a new skill is to remember how you learn — a skillset often forgotten as we grow older — and the fun that accompanies the process.

My months of social isolation ended with a new skill that I love to this day. I still pick up oranges from time to time and keep them afloat for nothing but the sheer pleasure of it, to see if I still can. (And I still can, non-stop, for a lot longer than a minute.) For those of us in social isolation, finding a “useless skill” can rebuild the muscle we had as a child. Pick a skill and master it your way. Remind yourself that you can learn on your own, that you taught yourself something before, that you can teach yourself again. Do you think you can do it? I bet you could.