6 Skills That Sound Awesome (But Are Secretly Useless)

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People who know me in real life know that I collect useless skills. If I had a “Mind Palace” like Sherlock, it would be a “Cluttered Mind Apartment” full of memorabilia from forgettable movies, old take-out boxes, bottles of cheap liquor along the window sill, and antiquated crap from yesteryear hidden behind bead doors that were popular in the 70’s.

Why? Because I fixate. Once I get it in my head that a skillset would be cool or useful, or make me look clever, I pick it up. To date, this habit has yielded exactly zero positive results. At worst I waste valuable time, which could be spent re-writing my schlocky fiction stories. At best I look like a moron for half-assedly mastering (half-asstering?) niche abilities.

In the interest of saving time and money for anyone thinking to try their hand at these fruitless endeavors, here are 6 skills that sound way cooler in your head, but are functionally useless in the real world.

1) Lockpicking

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Every doctor on House can lockpick a door with a bobby pin faster than a professional smith with a rake (a non-bobby-pin type pick) And any iteration of Sherlock Holmes can tease a masterlock open with a wink.

Then there are video games, which teach us that tempered steel and iron picks have the durability of chiseled glass, and will explode the moment the pick touches metal. In fact, based solely on video games and media, I can assume lockpicking takes a surgeon’s hand and a keen mind that roughly .02% of the population possess. But if you have the patience, the intellect, and the discipline, the world is your oyster, Right?

First off, before you order that olde-time leather rollout lockpick set, ask yourself; “How often will I need this?” If the answer is often, you’re probably stealing shit as we speak. Or if you’re fixated on that brief moment when a lockpick would’ve really impressed your date, having drunkenly locked the keys to your Civic in the driver-side cup holder, then congratulations, you’re human like the rest of us. And you probably solved that with a bent clothes hangar anyway.

Something I wasn’t aware of until my Sheriff neighbor caught me picking my own front door, is that carrying lockpicks is illegal. Something about “possession of burglary tools,” although he agreed never having to call the locksmith again would be pretty freaking sweet. So I win on a technicality, right Oregon Law?

Side Note: If you follow that link above you can find a website dedicated to a state-by-state breakdown of where lockpicks are legal, and in which states they’ll land you in the pokey

Lockpicking isn’t as silent as I was led to believe, either. Most of the time it’s noisy, requiring multiple tools, like a tension wrench and several picks. So forget about whispering to your partner while the two of you quip on who could pop the lock quickest. Most of the time it sounds like this:

Lots of clicking, ticking, and grinding. About the same noise level of a G.I. Joe action figure trying to stab the knob open with a fork.

2)Speed Reading

Dreaming about learning French in an evening of light perusal? Need to master the Renaissance period in 15 minutes before you’re expelled from school, shamed by your peers, and forced to eek out a living on the streets? Ever wonder why Neo needed to jack into the Matrix to unzip Kung Fu lessons, when he could have sped-read flying kicks into his brain?

I too fantasized about finally getting around to all those Dragon Age codex entries. That is, until I learned the awful truth about speed reading.

You see, your brain “culls” information from your memory if you don’t access it enough. If you only see the word “Ratchet” once in your life, you probably won’t notice if it’s deleted from your mental hard-drive. At least that’s how your brain sees it.

When you’re in the middle of speed-reading (provided you’re doing it right) you’re only repeating the information to yourself once. You’re absorbing the words written on the page exactly as fast as you can think it– and never again. You may be able to look up from a 20,000-word essay about the sex toy industry in Brazil, and repeat what you’ve sped through word-for-word. But because you’re not pondering the chapters in between (I.E; Re-accessing the information) then you’re not building strong synaptic bonds. And those weak bonds happen to be the first thing your brain prunes.

In short, if you want to absorb vast amounts of information with minimal effort, podcasts are better.

3) Voice Projecting

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Every scary movie has that suspenseful scene when the protagonist corners the serial killer, at gunpoint, and is about to teach them the meaning of justice, when the slippery villain dodges into a Macy’s department store. Or an underground labyrinth. Or a series of narrow alleyways. And that’s when the creepy voices start.

In the first season of True Detective, the killer throws his voice down abandoned tunnels, keeping Rust from getting a fix on his location. The Predator (of the movie Predator) literally uses a voice projector to, uh, project voices. And in Event Horizon…well, everything is messed up in that movie, the least of which are the demonic whisperings.

So what’s wrong with projecting my voice to freak out a date? Why can’t I throw a “ppfffftt!” across the elevator to make it sound like my boss is crop-dusting in confined spaces? And when the serial killer echoes my name through a maze of empty corridors, I want to be able to answer “Yah, what?” in an equally creepy reverb.

Unfortunately our ears are way too good at picking out sounds for this to be a useful skill. The shape of the human ear is optimized to judge the direction sound is coming from. And how far away it is. And, hell, pretty much everything. In fact, when it comes to sense information being transferred to your brain, hearing is the fastest sense. It makes your sense of touch look like the slurring drunk of the nervous system, which takes nearly a second to register pain.

You’ll also notice a common thread among those voice-throwing villains I listed above. They’re all using physical location to their advantage. Performers who are expert at projecting their voices are actually experts at gauging reverberation, wall distance, and angles, especially on stage. Which makes the creepy echo of “I’m coming for you!” less scary when you imagine the killer cupping his hands, shouting at a weirdly angled wall.

4) Photographic Memory

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Finally, a skill that will let me recall, with perfect clarity, where I left my keys. And the baby. And the retired dog-fighting rottweiler I left to guard the baby. And, oh god, where did I leave The Device?

There’s a great Ted Talk about an ordinary man who sought the secrets of award-winning memory champions, only to find that the Uber-Men of Memory are using mnemonic devices. They would construct a lengthy narrative to remember a series of cards, a list of numbers, or chunks of pi. By the end of this talk he reveals that, not only are their mental gifts less than sorcery, but he was able to reproduce their successes, going as far as winning the tournament.

But this isn’t photographic memory as we think of it.

What about savants who are capable of reproducing works of art, or skyline drawings based on memory alone? Well, that’s not photographic either. Turns out those savants are sacrificing functionality from their prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that keeps us focused on important tasks like socializing, sex, and fast-food. In fact there are recorded cases of patients suffering damage to the frontal lobe, gaining uncanny memory abilities at the loss of basic front-brain skills.

And people who have an uncanny eye for faces, or facts, or figures? Many can attribute their memory gifts to the diversity of the autism spectrum.

No human on earth can close their eyes and perfectly replicate a scene from their childhood, like they’re walking through a museum piece. So quit lying to me, Television!

5) Lip Reading

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Lip reading on television is hit or miss. It’s a super-power that allows the protagonist to catch people in lies, having watched them lip-flap their secrets from across the room. Or it’s a gag that begins and ends with childish misunderstandings about sex (See: Seinfeld)

If you think learning to lip-read is a hard science, I’ve got bad news. There is a lot of fallibility in lip reading, and the sounds we perceive with our eyes don’t always match the guttural cave-speak coming out of the subject’s mouth. If you watch the Youtube channel Bad Lip-Reading you’ll find perfectly acceptable translations of what Ned Stark’s lips and teeth are trying to communicate. In fact, it looks like the nonsensical word salad coming out of his mouth is part of the original script, and they had to dub over it to match the medieval atmosphere.

So let’s pretend you’ve sank enough hours into mastering this “third ear” known as lip-reading and you’re ready to unlock the secrets of everyone around you. If you’re a cynic like me, you probably saw this one coming.

People are boring.

Nobody is talking about you. And if they are, it’s about surface observations that you could have guessed anyway. Lip-reading only guarantees one thing when you’re “listening” to another person’s conversation; that you’re making full uncomfortable eye contact. Staring at someone’s mouth is a great way to draw attention to yourself and get them to stop talking. Unlike easing up beside them at the bar and fiddling with your smartphone. You don’t need to lip-read to eavesdrop. The best way to advertise that you don’t give a damn about what they’re saying is to text or play Candy Crush while they’re talking.

6) Heavy Lifting

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I saved this for last because I know a lot of people will argue with me. Medical benefits blah blah blah… Super-strength… Beat up bad guys. Get women. Yah, yah.

I’ve been lifting since I was in high school. I lifted heavy in college. And when I was let loose in a full-scale, Olympic-level gym later in life, I went sick. I took creatine and protein, and anything that had the sound “een” at the end. I tried hardcore plans like Wendler’s, and organized my water and sleep schedules around my exercise routine, and not my school or work routine. Years later, even after whisky and writing have taken their tole on my physical frame, I’m still the strongest of my gym rat group. And you know what I’ve learned?

The world is built for the statistical average.

There are rolling wheels on suitcases. Shoe stores stock most Nike’s in size 9 (the average). Professional moving men use wheeled dolly’s and back braces. Suit shirts have to be tailored for wider necks, not taken in for everyone else’s gurly-mahn noodle-neck.

If you’re a heavy lifter and you’re benching more than your body weight, good on you, because I know how much sweat and dedication that takes. But in today’s world, with its historically low crime rate, you’ll never run into a bad guy in need of a beat-down. And women don’t like huuuggee dudes anymore (if ever?).

Being a heavy lifter gives you confidence, sure. But beyond that it only guarantees that you’re the second call when a friend is packing boxes for moving day, right after the dude with the pickup.

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