Monday, August 13 , 2018, 11:55 pm | Partly Cloudy 66º

 
 
 

Paul Burri: Learning Useless Stuff Sometimes Pays Off

You never know when seemingly frivolous knowledge will come in handy

At one time or another I suspect that all of us have found ourselves sitting in some boring class thinking, “Why am I supposed to learn this stuff? I’ll never use it.” To some degree or another, I guess there is some sense to this. If you’re intending to pursue a career in sports, what good will trigonometry ever do for you? If you want to be a nuclear physicist, why do you need to take a music appreciation class?

I guess I should be grateful that, growing up, I was usually interested in whatever class I was required (or forced) to take. Or more accurately, I never totally hated any of them because I was always interested in learning something new. I just never remember asking myself that “What am I doing here?” question.

Around the second year of my high school days, I needed to start making some career decisions. The so-called career counselors were no help at all. Thinking back on it, I don’t think they had more knowledge of career possibilities or career paths than I did. Eventually I chose to become a chemical engineer. To this day I have very little idea what a chemical engineer actually does, so why did I choose that goal? To quote an old cliché, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

After taking numerous courses in engineering over the years and subsequently working in entirely different fields, I finally achieved my college degree — not in engineering but in business administration. But that, as they say, is a whole ‘nother story.

But back to my original idea of learning stuff that “I’ll never use.” At one time, still pursuing my engineering goal, I found myself taking a course titled Chemistry I. That was followed by an even more difficult course titled Chemistry II. I did fairly well in both courses, but I really could not see myself ever using what I was learning.

About 25 years later, I found myself managing a small printed circuit company in Gardena. For this, my growing business skills were vital. But I soon learned that much of the business of making printed circuit boards involved the electroplating of copper, tin, nickel, rhodium and gold. And those electroplating processes were mostly chemical and had to be monitored, controlled and maintained properly for the success of the business. I soon found myself talking to various technical people related to the plating processes, and guess what? Those “useless” classes in chemistry allowed me to at least be able to ask intelligent questions of these experts and to understand their answers.

Another time, many years after working at the printed circuit company when I now owned my own company, we needed a special bronze casting for one of our products. To make a casting requires that a wooden pattern be made that is in the exact size and shape of the final casting. And then, after taking a freshman high school class in pattern making about 55 years earlier (!), I one day found myself making that fairly sophisticated pattern and using what I had learned back then.

Had I wondered all those years earlier, why was I learning this stuff? No, but if I had, 55 years later I would have had my answer.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous Paul Burri columns. Follow Paul Burri on Twitter: @BronxPaul

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