Why You Should Make Useless Things

When I was ten years old, my family took a trip to Denver, Colorado. One evening, my mom kissed me on the forehead and told me she would be speaking at a seminar. In inhaled the sweet scent of her perfume as she handed me a large science kit and told me to have fun with the babysitter. My dad gave me and my brother each a big hug and then carried our baby sister our the doorway, shouting back, “be good!”

The babysitter let us order room service pizza and pay-per-view movies. We thought she was the coolest babysitter ever! I propped open my brand new science kit and started examining all of its contents: strings, balloons, baking soda, straws, vials, magnets, and more. I don’t recall whether the babysit left, fell asleep, or just let me go to town with my experiments, but boy did I have a blast!

My my parents returned late in the evening and gasped in horror as I shouted, “Look!” I had climbed on the furniture and taped string to all corners of the room, repeatedly sending inflated balloons soaring across the room on straw rails. I flooded the bathroom while learning about the buoyancy of various objects. I rearranged the decor throughout the room, and quickly figured out which objects were magnetic. My parents always encouraged learning, play, and experimentation at home, but this experience stands out as the most fun day of my life.

I don’t know about you, but I love hands-on learning. I enjoy the process of identifying a problem, brainstorming an approach, working toward a solution, and making adjustments as I go. Along with science experiments, my childhood self was fond of building battery-powered ferris wheels from of K’nex, constructing dioramas where the clay beavers and pine needle trees were supposed to be interactive, and attempting to build a backyard catapult from bricks, grilling tools, and the pooper-scooper. As a child, I built a lot of useless stuff.

A few years back, I discovered Simone Giertz. Simone is a Swedish inventor, maker, robotics enthusiast, professional You Tuber, and self-proclaimed “builder of shitty robots.” I think she’s amazing, not only because she’s funny and inventive, but because she reminds me that it’s okay to create for the sake of creation. She reminds me that it’s okay to fail–and fail miserably–as long as I can take something away from it, whether that’s a lesson, a laugh, or a new friend.

Simone recently gave a fun and heartfelt talk where she shares her hobby and her wacky creations. Her inventions have been designed to chop vegetables, cut hair with a drone, apply lipstick, and more. The inventions rarely succeed but, according to Simone, that’s the point.

“The true beauty of making useless things [is] this acknowledgment that you don’t always know what the best answer is. It turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. Maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question.”

Watching Simone’s video reminded me of another I saw recently about an artist who creates stop-motion animations from old stuff he finds lying around. Unlike Simone, animator and director Ainslie Henderson isn’t looking to solve an obscure problem, but instead hopes to bring new life to old objects. In the video, Ainslie talks about how he designs puppets for his stop motion animations, creating a charming little stop motion music video in the process.

Puppet-making often begins by just gathering stuff, like materials that I find attractive. Wood and sticks and wire and leaves and flowers and petals and bits of broken electronics…things that have already had a life are lovely to have in puppets.

To most observers, the creation and filming of little trash monsters may seem completely useless. It doesn’t solve a problem, yet perhaps–like Simone says of her useless robots–that’s not the point. Maybe the point of building and experimenting is simply to plug into our creative nature and create something interesting.

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