A few years ago, I read a short essay by Bertrand Russell titled “Useless” knowledge. The paper argued that what is considered “useless” knowledge, knowledge that doesn’t have a direct technical use in one’s life, is unjustly disregarded by many. Russel argued that it is precisely these little pieces of information that do not have a direct practical application which give life its savour. That reading made quite a powerful impression on me, as most of the things I find fascinating fall in that “useless” category.
Today I’d like to say a word in defense of “useless” challenges.
In May of 2017, I will be running my first ever marathon, in the beautiful city of Edinburgh. The reactions to this range from awe to sarcastic comments or utter incomprehension. But on everyone’s lips is the question: “Why?”
The challenge seems pointless. And it is: I know I’m not gonna win. I know I’m gonna suffer. I know I’ll have to train hard. I’m paying a fair amount of money to do this. And I know the only actual reward I will get is some mini finisher medal or t-shirt —Nothing to write home about.
And despite all that, I set myself up for this challenge. Why?
Because, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, in a world that is more and more utility-driven, a world of efficiency, of task-management tools and motivational quotes, it is, in the end, the “useless” things that matter most, because they give life its taste. A large part of whatever meaning I find in life comes from these “useless” things: a fleeting random encounter, a cheerful chitchat with the local coffee shop waitress, or, indeed, a challenge that has no other purpose than to be a challenge for myself. No judges, no attentive audience, no reward, no money, no ulterior agenda, no set goals nor fixed strategy. Merely a chance to enjoy being challenged and going beyond my limits, jut for the sake of it, just because it’s fun, just because I want to.
A chance to enjoy the delicious taste of true freedom that one only finds in “useless” challenges, “useless” encounters, and “useless” knowledge.