The Deep Value of Useless Things

At the risk of sounding like an aging baby boomer (oops, that is me), I want to put in a pitch to value highly those things that aren’t worth much. So here’s why everyone else is wrong.

A liberal arts or humanities major

There are an awful lot of parents these days who have a seizure if their progeny announce they are majoring in English or worse yet, French literature, art history, or history. This is close on the heels of recovery from the previous seizure when they saw the tuition bill. In the instant mental computation available to every check writing parent, we now know the degree will be worthless and the kid will be decorating cappuccino cups as their highest creative achievement. Particularly for female students, they’ll also feel as if they’ve betrayed feminism if they don’t major in a STEM field. In fact, tell people about a liberal arts major and they’ll immediately feel sorry for you (or your pathetic kid).

Once upon a time I majored in Sociology and minored in creative writing/English. Then I took COBOL and FORTRAN programming. Guess which choice has been more useful to my career, as well as my life? If you guessed computer skills, you’d be wrong. I haven’t made a penny off my computer skills. Technical knowledge quickly becomes defunct, A lot of specific, functional expertise can be gotten off YouTube (how do YOU do home repairs?). You can take an adult ed program or concentrated seminar for specific skills you discover you need.

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible as an adult to get concentrated time over an extended period to immerse yourself in culture, beauty, and deep background. College is very likely the only time in your life when you’ll have such an opportunity. I would have been very disappointed if my already-cosmopolitan daughter had selected some technical training field with the purpose of paying to become corporate cannon fodder at graduation.

Yes, of course we all have to work, and if your heart is in computer science, go for it. But, for most people I think not. At the music camp I just attended, instructor Kevin Carroll (a better musician and teacher than I can ever hope to be) commented that once upon a time everyone wanted to and thought they could be a rock star, and sales of electric guitars boomed. In these times, electric guitar sales have crashed. Now everyone wants to be an app developer or tech billionaire, or just play video games. Is it love, or is it the promise of instant riches? Why do the worst jobs have the best cafeterias? I wanted dearest daughter to keep her eyes on the prize—she needed to become employable at some point and probably no one hires a BA Anthropologist to do anthropology—but she isn’t a dope so she figured that one out for herself. In the meantime she learned a lot about group process, creating alternative solutions to unfamiliar tasks, and read a ton of good books which she thankfully sent home to educate her mom properly.

Playing music with no intention (or hope) of becoming a professional

An orchestra director once lamented to me that his extremely talented students, the ones whose parents were tigers, graduated and went into (pick one) engineering, computer science, or statistics because the parents felt that the only degree worth getting was one that offered instant employment, and music sure wasn’t that. But awards look good on college applications.

I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about performance majors at conservatories, not because of the near-impossibility of finding a job in the field, but because the education is so thin in any other topic. But what a supreme pleasure to play at that level. And I dearly wish I saw those same kids, or their parents, in the audience at musical events. They seem to disappear once the admission letter arrives.

I’m focusing on music here, but I could probably say the same thing about art, or creative writing, or even languages. They are all or individually worth doing because of the immense pleasure and satisfaction they bring to your life, not your work. I’ve enjoyed an obsession with music—guitar, piano, ukulele, dulcimer, Native American flute—for most of my life. I play everyone of them badly, but all I have to do is catch sight of one of my instruments from the corner of my eye to feel happy. I almost never play in front of anyone, nor do I feel I need to.

At times, being able to play or do art has been the only thing that saved my sanity in the large variety of horrible jobs I’ve wended my way through in life. I highly recommend it—and it’s often cheaper than all the stress coping activities that attempt to accustom you to a life with no other relief.

Crafts and hobbies

What I say about music and art goes just as well with crafts and hobbies, although making something may have even more empowerment than replicating someone else’s work. Carpentry, sewing, cooking, rebuilding classic cars, all these things give you control over aspects of your life that hiring someone else never does. There’s the pleasure of mastering the techniques, the lifelong opportunity to improve the technique, and the ability to have something custom, well crafted, and utterly your own.

For example, I make almost all my own clothing, (and much of my jewelry) and have done so since I was about 12 years old. No one ever asks me if I made “xyz”. I like to think it’s because what I make is so expert they’d never think it was “homemade” (I prefer “handmade”), but my strong suspicion is that no one, anymore, recognizes that objects could be handmade unless they come from Ten Thousand Villages.

If you’ve been in my office you’ve seen the stunningly beautiful Mission style “throne” that a friend made for me. He’s organized his professional work so that he can have Fridays for his beloved craft.

Some crafts—knitting, cooking—are relatively easy to learn to a competent degree. Others take years—sewing, carpentry—to reach even a medium level of expertise. How wonderful to be interested in something where there is always more to learn.

Back to sewing—as with most crafts, no, it doesn’t save any money with the cost of fabric and the time spent. And, thanks to cheap clothing available everywhere, there’s no real possibility of making finely-made, quality-fabric garments and realizing any money selling them. But oh, the satisfaction, not only in the finished project but in the pleasure of the activity itself!

Less cash, more human interaction

Just about every night we walk our dog past a house in the neighborhood where we see a family sitting in their expensive house, in front of their bay window, eating out of boxes. I wonder how hard and long they work to pay for those boxes because earning enough to do so means they don’t have time to cook. They are well and truly trapped on the treadmill.

I love that we can learn so many things online (it’s how I learned to crochet), but maybe, just maybe, we could spend time with our kids, or an older relative, getting the fine-tuning that interaction with another human offers. But that would mean we’d have to take some time off the moving sidewalk. Maybe then, we could think not of enduring “getting older” but call it living longer (with so much worthwhile to do).

About the author

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Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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