Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Does Everything You Do Need To Be Practical?

A young girl daydreaming

Let’s go back in time to 1979. I was in the eighth grade and had a growing interest in and love for movies that was fuelled by the TV shows Magic Shadows and Saturday Night At The Movies. Both were hosted by the late Elwy Yost, a man who had a powerful influence on me.

My other fascination was with the special effects in science fiction movies and TV series. Each month, I made a beeline to a local convenience store to pick up the latest issues of Starlog and CineFX magazines to learn more about how the magic of SF movies was made. Part of me yearned to make my own short films, even if I had no clue how to do that.

While rooting around in a closet one day, I discovered a pair of old, dust-covered 8mm film cameras. The kind used by the amateur filmmakers I’d been reading about. That discovery sparked my imagination.

I set one of those cameras up in front of a disused table in my parents’ basement. On top of that table, I cobbled together a crude set and with some small articulated action figures borrowed from a friend, I got to work. For an hour or two each evening, I meticulously (or, as meticulously as I could) moved those action figures a fraction of a millimetre and took a single frame shot of that movement with the camera. I repeated that over and over again until my fingers tired and my brain went numb.

A few months into my crude experiments with stop motion animation, and with a couple of minutes of footage in the camera, my parents called a halt to the proceedings. I was told what I was doing wasn’t practical and that I had to stop.

Since that day, I’ve wondered if everything we do needs to be practical. The conclusion I’ve come to?

It doesn’t.

Over the years, I’ve found that a utilitarian view of … well, just about everything isn’t an uncommon one. Many people I’ve encountered only look to activities that will benefit them in some way. A course that will help them with their work or which will get them a better-paying job. An activity that’s designed to increase their competence at some activity. An exercise the will help them improve their performance at a sport.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but practicality and utility shouldn’t be your only criteria for choosing to do something. Being focused on utility an practicality smacks too much of work, and the blurring of work and your personal life.

Doing something impractical has benefits, too. One of the reasons my parents deemed my dabbling in animation to be impractical was because they didn’t think I could make a living or forge a career out of special effects. They were probably right, but that wasn’t the point. And I had no aspirations to move into that line of work.

There’s nothing wrong with doing something simply because you enjoy it. There’s more to life than work, and enjoyment can be as important as utility and practicality. Maybe even more important than utility and practicality.

Spending hours behind that old 8mm camera helped me use and develop my creativity. It gave me a chance to escape from the drudgery of school work, from the pressures of oncoming puberty, from the mundane aspects of my life. I’d argue that working on my stop motion movie made me a better, more rounded person in several ways. It definitely deepened my love and appreciation for films and the the efforts of filmmakers everywhere.

The biggest benefit of doing something that’s impractical is that it gives your mind a chance to go fallow, to drift away from the problems and puzzles of your working life. Doing something impractical can make you more effective, it can make you more creative by getting your mind off what you do for 8 or 10 or more hours a day.

Doing something that’s impractical is also great way to allow yourself to escape that Jedi/ninja/superhero/rockstar mentality that seems to have infected the world. You’re under no pressure to perform or to even succeed. You can just do what you want, have fun, and fail happily. You can suck at what you’re doing, but that’s fine as long as you’re enjoying yourself.

Give yourself permission every so often to do something that isn’t practical. Let loose, have fun, and don’t concern yourself about success or failure. Don’t worry about whether or not what you’re doing will advance your goals. It probably will advance those goals, but not in the way you expect it to.

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