Things Worth Knowing, Even Poorly

I recently came upon this quote by Kató Lomb:

We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly. If someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.

Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan. (HT)

I agree with Lomb’s sentiment. I may never master Spanish or French, not to mention Chinese or Korean. But even learning a small amount connects me with cultures that would otherwise be closed off.

And, although it’s a popular sentiment that everyone in the world speaks English nowadays, they really don’t. This statistic puts the total number of speakers at only 10.7%-21%, meaning a full 80-90% of the world would be unable to understand you if you spoke to them.

I also believe the idea of learning something, even poorly, is a good attitude with language learning. Too many people think speaking poorly is something shameful, so they don’t try to speak another language at all.

Other Things Worth Learning Badly

I depart from Lomb in her assessment that languages are the sole object of study worth doing, even poorly. While there is certainly a category of things without tremendous value if they aren’t learned well, the complement to that category is certainly larger than just languages.

I could take this moment to go through a list of which I feel falls into each category, but I’d rather leave the question open to comments. What do you feel is worth learning, even poorly? And, why do you think that even mediocre ability is worth the time to learn it? Finally, what separates skills worth learning poorly from those that are only worth learning if you plan to learn them very well?

I have my own answers to these questions, but I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Write in and if there’s enough interest, I’ll try to highlight the best in a future post.

  • Wasif

    Basic survival skills are worth bringing into play as well. Skills such as learning how to swim will never go amiss. Indeed one may never actually enter a large body of water of their own free will, but in the rare occasion that you do find yourself in a scenario such as drowning you will regret not taking the time to learn. By the way, you never know. You might actually find something you enjoy simply by taking little leaps of faith.

  • Steve O

    Things just about everyone would benefit from knowing poorly:

    1. Keyboard shortcuts
    2. Microsoft Office
    3. Windows and iOS

    Knowing the basics of the above can save anyone who uses a computer regularly minutes in every interaction, adding up to dozens or even hundreds of hours at work and at home.

    Things which could benefit everyone with slightly more knowledge:
    1. Programming
    2. Statistics
    3. Psychology (especially learning psychology and social psychology)

    Programming again saves time, especially for tasks that can be automated. It also helps us understand the world around us. Stats help us make decisions–which route to take, whether a travel destination is safe, whether the TSA is full of crap (spoiler alert: it is). Knowledge of basic psychology help people communicate, understand one another’s motivations, and follow through on our own commitments.

  • Ivan Izo

    That’s a great question Scott. I would have to say job search techniques are something worth learning even if done poorly. Even a badly written cover letter will give an employer some idea whether you’re a good candidate for a job opening. If you only know one place to look for jobs, at least you know that one place. And it’s not always the person who has mastered the job interview who gets the job. Companies are looking for a good fit for actual work rather than mastery at job searching. Thanks again for the article.

  • Baggio

    Quite frankly, I think there are lots of things that are worth learning even if we only ever achieve a mediocre level: basic sketching skills, basic skill at playing an instrument, rudimentary understanding of macroeconomics, fluent in one programming language, cooking, I could rant on about this.

    When it comes to thinking about what we should learn, I don’t agree in a diversification approach, where we dip our feet in every pool we can find…but I do think that there’s a basic set of skills that every should possess, and the proficiency doesn’t have to be at a level of mastery, just sufficient to get the job done.

    The question seems to be how to define this set of skills for each individual, isn’t it? It’s obviously going to vary for each individual, and it’s almost impossible to know when and in what form you’re going to need something. We can only say that between two skills, one skill might just be more likely to be useful than the other. For example, I would deem programming to be more useful than cooking, but who knows?

    Pertaining to Lomb’s statement, I completely agree…I’ve often thought that language is one of the most important but also one of the most neglected aspects of education. I often dream of a world where new people leaving the education system emerge trilingual (or conversationally proficient in three languages) at least – they should be fluent in their native language, English, and another language from the six official UN languages, namely, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic or Chinese.

    If we take what Lomb says to be accurate (which I agree with), by reinforcing the importance of achieving a basic linguistic proficiency across at least three languages, I can only imagine the opening up of new pathways and opportunities, the new chances to meet new people and to enrich each and every one of our lives.

    What an ideal world that’d be. 🙂

  • Natalie

    Nice post, Scott, and thanks for drawing our attention to that quote. Another thing worth knowing poorly (in my opinion) is computer programming. I know a bit of Python and have outdated (and therefor poor) knowledge of HTML and CSS and knowing all of these has helped me. Concepts I learned when learning a bit of Python have helped me build financial models in Excel for my classes and I love using CSS to tweak my website design.

  • Oleg

    To begin is the hardest part, and the more you learn, the easier it is to move forward. So even if you don’t know much about the subject, you know that, should the need arise, you can always broaden your knowledge much faster than if you didn’t know anything at all about it.

    As for different kinds of skills, I guess it’s the price of failure that matters. If you don’t manage to buy that train ticket in Spanish, you’ll ask in English or find someone to help you out. Whereas for a surgeon, even during the simplest operation, there’s always a risk that things will go horribly wrong, and then he’ll need all the knowledge he has to handle it.

  • Char

    I do not have good ear for language, but I have found that trying is appreciated – even in France where people told me anyone not speaking fluent French was looked upon with distain. I found the people very warm and welcoming even as I slaughtered their language. They understood that I was trying and they appreciated my attempts.

    I agree with Natalie that understanding a computer programming language is helpful since some basic knowledge lets you second guess what a website or other program is trying to accomplish and helps you navigate those that are poorly designed.

    To these skills I would add carpentry (everyone can benefit from knowing how to make simple home repairs), art (an eye for color and composition helps you decorate your house and chose flattering clothes), finance (knowing how to budget and invest is letting me live quite comfortably in retirement), psychology (hey- we deal with people every day).

    I could go on and on. I guess I never found a subject that didn’t interest me and after I learn something I’m always finding new ways of applying it.

  • Malcolm

    Again for the connective purposes, lots of various card/board games. Worth knowing well enough that you could play them with people you just met. Also partner dancing, for the same reasons.

    (Mindfulness) Meditation. You don’t need to become an expert, but even just internalizing the idea that you can take some time to settle your mind is a valuable thing to have in your brain.

  • Coulter

    Drawing & Writing.

    Aside from learning languages, I can think of very few skills that can have as great an impact on cognition and perception.

    Drawing teaches us to participate in what we see instead of passively viewing the world. Even “rudimentary” drawings such as sketches and doodles can immensely increase our capacity for creativity and insight.

    Writing is another skill that can add immeasurable value to our lives. The mere act of writing alone can help clarify our thoughts and provide deeper perspective.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the great minds throughout history have made daily practice of these two skills.

    I don’t make a living doing either of these things, but I practice them daily. It’s difficult to measure the joy they’ve added to my life.

  • G Horn

    I think being ready (to the extent possible) for coming events is worth doing even poorly. The following is a quote from Edward Hale…

    When Haliburton was visiting General Hooker’s head-quarters, he arrived just as the General, with a brilliant staff, was about to ride out to make an interesting examination of the position. He asked Haliburton if he would join them, and, when Haliburton accepted the invitation gladly, he bade an aid mount him. The aid asked Haliburton what sort of horse he would have, and Haliburton said he would—and he knew he could—“ride anything.” He is a thorough horseman. You see what a pleasure it was to him that he was perfectly ready for that contingency, wholly unexpected as it was. I like to hear him tell the story, and I often repeat it to young people, who wonder why some persons get forward so much more easily than others. Warburton, at the same moment, would have had to apologize, and say he would stay in camp writing letters, though he would have had nothing to say. For Warburton had never ridden horses to water or to the blacksmith’s, and could not have mounted on the stupidest beast in the head-quarters encampment. The difference between the two men is simply that the one is ready and the other is not.

  • Nathan Glenn

    I think the quote makes some bad comparisons. It compares learning a little of something and trying to be a professional with learning a little of something and using it practically though imperfectly in a personal setting. Knowing a little medicine and trying to be a doctor can’t be compared with knowing a little language and stuttering through an ungrammatical sentence when required. The real equivalent would be writing a book or giving a high-stakes speech in front of a large audience, something that could lead to embarrassment and disaster without enough knowledge.

    Knowing a little medicine will help you to know to keep pressure on the wound when you’ve cut yourself deeply, to put neosporin on infected sores or ingrown toenails, and to use aloe vera to soothe sunburns. Knowing a little chemistry means knowing not to mix ammonia and bleach, that baking soda makes cookies rise and stains leave carpets, and that bleach turns things white and is poisonous. You may not be learning about the atomic-level interactions, but with the language example you’re not learning to draw syntax trees, either.

    Language is still useful and amazing and fun, of course, but let’s not avoid other types of knowledge because we aren’t planning on becoming professionals.

  • Logan

    Basic mental math such as addition and subtraction of double digit numbers, and close estimations of simple multiplication and division just for everyday problems like tax, or the amount of candy you can give to each trick-or-treater, or if a train was leaving New York at 30 miles per hour and…

    Physiology in regards to health – Just knowing how your body really works such as knowing that if you don’t get enough of a nutrient (such as fat), you’re malnourished and going to go out of your way to eat that ice-cream (which is why no-fat diets don’t work), and if you eat too much of a nutrient, it becomes toxic. Ex. small amounts of arsenic and large amounts of water will both make you equally dead. And all this basic knowledge can be covered in about 1 to 3 days depending on what you read and who’s teaching, and then you won’t be fooled by the newest diet, or the next acai berry or Brazilian vegetable-fruit, and one will actually lose weight (or gain weight in my case), and stay healthy.

    Basic dancing – I know Scott made an article on this, and my own experience agrees with him. Just taking a dance class will get you used to dancing in front of others, so when the opportunity to dance arrives, you won’t be a party pooper, but you’ll be comfortable dancing and making a fool of yourself, which I would agree is so much better than standing arm-crossed at the wall, being a party-pooper.

    Public Speaking – same reason as dancing, except for the less fortunate of us, public speaking comes up more often, and getting used to public speaking by publicly speaking at one point in your life will forever set you up to express your thoughts to a crowd when the situation calls for it. We all know those people who wouldn’t speak in front of a room of peers even if their life depended on it, and for the majority, those people don’t get much from life. Just a little practice with public speaking will allow you to get that loan, explain your idea at a board meeting, and effectively eulogize that loved one who died.

    The Bible and Greek mythology – Christian, athiest, or Hellenic Polytheist, it’s still good to know enough to understand the everyday references and analogies.

    History and Politics- What were the causes of the two world wars? Their results? What caused the Great Depression? The holocaust? What about the causes of the US’s “police Actions” in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East? Knowing just basic history can help prevent it from happening again. A lot of voters have opinions on issues and candidates, but they themselves don’t really know the issues or what the candidates really stand for, and this video… humorously shows gullible voters not knowing about their own governor elections.

    I would agree with cooking, programming, and social skills, yet as I write this comment, I think what constitutes a basic understanding. Scott, you’re in these countries 3 months, and you can express whatever you want in Spanish and the idea comes across, so should the things we list as commentors be something you could study in 3 months and be good? The things I have listed would only take a few days to a few weeks to get the benefit.

    Also, this makes me think of the Renaissance Man who had to know several languages, understand philosophies and sciences, appreciate art and literature, and be adept at sports, and so I ask, if you will, if you would write a future article on what you believe should be the modern renaissance man?

  • Radhika

    Honestly, most school subjects are worth knowing about. Math and Science, no matter how much you know, will help you understand the world around you. It aids your everyday decisions, however subtle it seems.

    History, I think, is also important, only if to understand psychology and sociology. Maybe learning those subjects instead is more important.

  • Chris

    Knowing the answer to this question is worth full-knowing.

    Also, I think there’d be a difference between setting a value for yourself and for others. If I wanted to appreciate the theory of evolution reading The Origin of Species could be enough, but if I wanted to write the second volume of the God Delusion, it would be imperative to have read an extensive amount of perspectives on various religion because it’s about debating the society’s moral values. You want to be almost entirely right on it, whereas leaving yourself a Christian would be enough with the Bible.

  • V

    Anything that brings you joy. I can’t dance well, but it brought me and my husband together for twelve years of happy marriage … and counting.

    Also, all kinds of “languages.” Not just language languages. I used to ask an ice-breaking question in my project management classes. “How many languages do you speak?” Most students would raise their hands at “One”. Some at “two” or “three”. Once, a student raised his hand at “five.” They were surprised when I said I spoke at least 30. But they quickly caught on when I started listing them: English, French, accounting, law, engineering, knitting, football, baseball, dance, Dilbert, skiing, piano, flute, Princeton, NYU, cooking, baking, swimming, bridge, Outlook, Word, Excel, Harry Potter, Star Trek, NYC, Portland, Buffalo, Atlanta, Boston, etc. Some I can speak fluently, others, just enough to start up a conversation with someone. But all worthwhile. Each student loved filling up a flipchart page with the “languages” he/she spoke … and it was a great way to get to know each other quickly.

  • Cameron

    This is such a great attitude to take toward language learning. It really seems true. Thanks for posting it. Merci, gracias and obrigado.

    As for other things worth doing or learning even only for a short period… I want to say logic. I think this is an undervalued asset. And I believe music is worth it too, not for others at this point though. Just for oneself.

  • Sukhneet Singh

    Worth learning, even poorly:

    1. How to learn (even a small investment improves your learning for life)
    2. You personal strengths (you can uncover more on your own)
    3. How to understand someone you disagree with 100% (this will open up an entire world of new knowledge)

    I think the difference in skills are:
    1. The 80/20 rule (how much you can apply what little you learned), and
    2. Available alternatives.

    I thought about adding basic math as a skill to learn poorly since it’s used in so many places (thus activating 80/20). Then I remembered the ease of accessing a calculator, and how so many calculations are done for us these days (like how much to tip).

    With language, having 20 common words down allows you to put together basic sentences. You can piece that with flailing arm movements and pointing, and get your idea across. This satisfies 80/20, since the tiny bit you know can be used so much. Then, if you know nothing and there are no English speakers around, you’re in a much tougher spot (satisfying the lack of available alternatives criteria).

    May be totally off. I thought about it for a bit, and it made sense.

    Thanks for the valuable insight! Getting me pumped about language learning again.

  • Farhan


  • Abrar

    Table Manners I think? Even a bit of it could give people a good impression of you, even if you eat gracefully but after eating you don’t put your fork and spoon correctly it’d automatically ruin your image.

  • Stephan R

    Learning how to cook even on the most basic level will literally keep you alive. There is nothing worse than seeing people unequipped and unskilled to properly feed themselves. And, if you have ever cooked something very basic for somebody else, you will know the feeling of how easy it is to connect wih others on a social level.

    Most importantly, as my girlfriend recently noted: “There is nothing more sexy than seeing a man prepare a meal.”

    Also, I find that having basic dance skills will go a long way of meeting new people and experiencing dance-oriented cultures (South America). For example, knowing the basic steps of Salsa is bound to give you thumbs up from Latin American women, especially if you are the only Gringo struggling on the dance floor.

  • Sharon Leah

    How to write is worth knowing, even poorly. While poor writing drives me bonkers, it’s a tool for communicating with people and it challenges me to listen more carefully.

    Zumba (or anything that improves fitness) is worth knowing, even poorly. A woman who walked in late during a zumba session at the gym I go to also left abruptly, because she couldn’t do all the moves “right.” She missed the point. The movements to music are not about doing the moves perfectly. They’re for improving coordination, balance, cardio and muscle strength, and for fun.

  • Paul at “No Pension, Will Trav

    While I like the sentiment behind the quote, upon reflection, I believe that almost everything is worth knowing a little about, as long as you also know a lot about your area of specialization, and as long as you actively connect all the areas to your daily experience. Each area of knowledge is like a language, allowing you to communicate with the specialists and bodies of knowledge in that field. A little knowledge of physics allows you to be informed by physics, a little knowledge of history gives you access to avoiding the mistakes of the past, and so on. John Taylor Gatto summed this up nicely in his piece, “The Guerrilla Curriculum: How to Get An Education In Spite of School”, especially the section known as “Twelve Reflections on an Educated Person”, see:… or search “twelve reflections on an educated person”

  • Catt

    I agree with the other posts, and loved the article, about education, cited by Paul. I can only add that basic building, camping, making due with what is handy in unexpected situations is always worth knowing, even a little. Whatever we are interested in learning seems to be what we will need in the future. Most of what I pursue, as far as education, is based on whatever I felt I needed in the past.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. You are always opening my eyes!

  • jim

    I think it’s natural that we all know a bit about a lot of things. The more we have contact, the more we should improve our knowledge. If you’re a home owner, some knowledge of carpentry, lawn care, and glass cleaning might be helpful. Most of us probably know a little about bicycling and can jump on one and wobble down the street. If you decide to commute, it’s a good idea to know a bit more. These days it’s probably a good idea to know what other people know about you: how to get your credit report, what you might not want to share on social networks. Everyone’s list is going to be different, you might hire someone to mow your lawn, or take the bus, or shun social networking.

  • Nick

    I take the opposite view that learning another language is actually a huge waste of time. Unless you plan on living in the country or traveling to it more than twice a year, I dont see the point. English is the predominant language in the Western world, and you can usually make it around the world with it. People will say that learning another language helps to add to your perspective of the culture; people forget that language is just a set of grammar and spelling tools.

    On subjects that should be learned:
    How to do Research
    Basic Psychology
    Basic Economics

  • Joanna

    I don’t agree about medicine not being useful if you know only a little about it – it’s always good to know first aid and a few ways of treating minor illnesses at home, without having to run to a doctor every time you have a nosebleed or a small burn, and very helpful.

  • Renee

    it was exciting to learn a little bit of Spanish because that little knowledge i gained enabled me to get above a zero so it could add to my final grade. i love to write and the more i read other interesting pieces and write even more i am able experience and understand even more than i thought i could even though i am still not perfect. i have learnt and learn everyday, that a little goes a far way 🙂

  • J

    Hey Scott,

    There are a zillion and one things that one can and should learn to at least the level of poorly. And that’s what Josh Kaufman’s book The First 20 Hours ( is advocating: you can gain the rudimentary basics of just about any skill in 20 hours. All it takes is the right curriculum, a good method, and the 80:20 rule (which sounds an awful lot like what you keep saying on your blog!). I’ve tried it, I can attest to learning some divers skills, from playing guitar (poorly) to making soap from scratch (not so poorly, it’s actually quite easy).

    Top of my list: survival skills (as mentioned above), first aid, languages, conflict resolution, negotiation, personal finance, and tap dancing. Can’t go wrong with a quick soft-shoe shuffle to pass the time.

  • Johnny Mean

    Conflict management

    1)Simple Environment & Threat Assessments
    2)Basic verbal strategies to defuse
    3)1-3 Defensive strategies and tactics (Have a Plan B, and Plan C)

    It amazing what a little environmental awareness and early positioning can do to keep you from becoming a statistic.

  • Frank

    From Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973)

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    I grew up on Heinlein and all the other scifi authors of the time and have continued that reading for my whole life. Nothing in the above quote is meant to be taken literally as it encompasses a range of skills that can be extended to relevance in your own personal situation.

    My advice is, for life long learning. I’m still at it heading for my sixth decade.

    Can you read something other than a book for more than 10 minutes? that’s another skill that needs mastery, especially if it causes cognitive dissonance and makes you uncomfortable or even angry.

    Another thing is to stop and think. If other people have the same facts as you do but still insist and persist in believing something else can they really be wrong or is the question wrong?

  • David

    One thing worth learning…even poorly: BEING SOCIAL! Stepping out of one’s comfort zone to interface with others is a skill that should be honed from the time we leave our mother’s womb till we get that last shovel full of dirt thrown on us. I think you two are making great strides toward understanding lanquage AND being social with this experiment. In fact, learning a new language allows us to access circles of people we would otherwise be locked out from. That’s why I think this challenge is such a ground breaking endeavor. Keep it up by all means, gentlmen!

  • Michael Bowen

    I will keep my response short to just one skill:


    You can express your thoughts, build creativity, and delve into your own psychology all with this one skill. You don’t even have to be good to reach these other topics.

  • Priyankar

    1.Basics of computers, maybe a bit of programming.
    2.Survival skills, first aid
    3.General awareness about the world we live in.

  • Rakeen Tanvir

    I thing one very easily missed set of skills worth learning, even poorly, is martial arts. In addition to basic survival skills, martial arts can prepare a person for infrequent but highly dangerous situations.

    Since most people don’t proactively learn how to fight, even basic martial arts skills will be useful when going up against an attacker.

    On the other hand, it is very difficult to gain value from martial arts philosophy unless one learns it very well. It’s just so conceptual that without deep and prolonged exposure, it’s very easy to forget about it.

    This is in contrast to martial arts skills that are ingrained into muscle memory, which usually recalls better than conceptual memory.

  • Alejandro

    I would say utility worth is found in these tareas:
    – Knowing yourself.
    – Knowing others.
    – Knowing how to relate your self to others.

    For this I would take any opportunities to learn more starting from these subject areas at basic level and then progressing and branching out as far as you will:
    1) language(s) and rhetoric
    2) maths, statistics, finance, analysis, logic, computing, etc.
    3) psychology and health sciences (including biology, chemistry, physics as required).

  • Chris

    All kinds of sports are worth learning badly. At every level there are other players to do it with.

  • Hugo Santos

    Lateral thinking

  • Jordan Michaels

    Social skills. Even just knowing the basics of how to talk to people, you don’t have to be chatty Kathy, but just general politeness and common social etiquette can go so far. I work with customers every day and most of them are fine, but the few that can’t talk or interact really make things awkward. Not just for myself, but for themselves. I don’t try and demean them, but they can just make little improvements like looking you in the eye or smiling. It will go such a long way for them, but of course I cannot tell them that.

  • Aung Shein

    All natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology, geography, engineering, electronics and medical sciences, deal with matter and energy—the physical aspects of nature. Even psychology, which goes after behaviorism, cannot pin-point the mind and analyse it.

    But it is the mind which leads the world and the life of everybody. All sciences and philosophies are produced by the mind, governed by the mind and children of the mind. So the mind is undoubtedly the most powerful agent in the world!

    Abhidhamma pin-points the mind, analyses and characterizes the mind, describes the functions of the mind and puts the mind in its proper place. The true ability of every person lies in his mind. So nobody need look up to the sky and ask for help from some supernatural forces for the most powerful force lies within himself!

    Please have a look at this book at the link below.

    Dr Mehm Tin Mon: Buddha Abhidhamma – Ultimate Science

  • john Nomura

    things worth learning poorly:
    1. how to savor every moment – adds a lot to the quality of life
    2. how to stay healthy – everything depends on health
    3. how to meditate – greatly increases the enjoyment of life
    4. how to save money & invest it – wish I head learned this earlier in life
    5. finding your passions in life – if you are passionate about something, then it is worth learning