I can roll perfect dinner rolls with either hand. At the same time.
It’s a skill I picked up as a prep cook at a fancy restaurant where I worked in college. They were known for their delicious dinner rolls, and it was my job to turn them out by the hundreds. It was slow going at first, with most of my attempts lopsided or undersized. The lady who had worked there for years laughed at my output, then patiently taught me the technique.
This lost skill came back to me when I attended a Native Plant Society of Texas class on making seed balls. Basically, you dump a wildseed mix into mud and roll it into hail-sized balls. Once dry, you put them out to slowly break down and germinate. As I deftly turned out a dozen perfect seed balls, I contemplated what other inconsequential skills we learn that later turn out to be consequential.
My favorite example is typing. Back in high school, I was faced with an empty slot in my schedule where I needed an elective. I carried a very full load, so decided to take touch typing. My thought process was that when I went to college, I would be typing lots of papers. I didn’t realize there would be word processors, then computers, and that I eventually would do writing for a living. Every day I am thankful I can type 80 words a minute. If only I could think that fast.
Another elective I took for fun was Spanish. I say fun, because this was in Iowa. The only Spanish speaker I knew was Maria on Sesame Street. Little did I know I would end up in South America teaching school. That Spanish 101 came in handy, although for the first two weeks, I survived on “arroz con pollo,” because that was the only food phrase I knew.
Some of the skills we resisted learning turned out to be the most handy. In our junior high, all the girls had to take a shop class, and all the boys a homemaking class. With a surprising minimum of shoulder punching, we learned to make tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and to sew our own aprons, complete with pockets and belt.
To this day, I can sew on a button that won’t fall off.
In college, to fill that pesky PE credit, I became quite adept at bowling, badminton and paddleball. Some of my favorite electives were the dance classes, including ballet. Who could know one day I would do a turn as Herr Drosselmeier in “The Nutcracker” (happening this weekend at Fredericksburg Theater Company, by the way).
Some skills came from working our first menial jobs. That is the real value of being waitresses and fence builders and house painters and manure scoopers.
You not only pick up handy tips like how to crimp barbed wire, use a paint roller or drive a manual transmission, you learn to put up with mediocre co-workers and abusive bosses — all handy in whatever field you eventually enter.
Sometimes the learning happens “while doing something else.” As a road musician, I learned how to change spark plugs and set the timing on my ’68 Ford Station Wagon, sometimes while standing on the side of a highway in Tennessee (thank you, Bill Smallwood).
Of course there are those skills that never serve any purpose. I have yet to capitalize on my ability to ride a unicycle.
Everyone reading this can think back to similar situations that, as a youth, taught you a basic skill that turned out to help your career or improve your life in ways you couldn’t anticipate. I guess the lesson is to not stop learning new things.
Life is just a stack of useless skills, until you use them.