To say something is useless is not the same as saying it's worthless, says Rick Davis, whose career is teaching people skills that have no value other than momentary diversion.
"I think everybody deep down inside feels a kind of continual stress at always having to do the right thing," said Davis, the author of "Totally Useless Office Skills: 75 Great Ways to Play at Work" (Hobblebush Books; $12.95). "You could have the greatest resume in the world, but in the background there's always this voice saying `Do I have everything right?' "Davis, of Temple, N.H., knew he was onto something several years ago, when he was signed up to be a "facilitator" at a retreat for teenagers. Having gotten his start with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1970s, he'd been asked to do a clowning workshop.
"I said to myself, high school students are not going to go for this `Bozo' stuff," he said. So he offered Totally Useless Skills instead. About 50 kids signed up, while the classes on such topics as conflict resolution and drug abuse intervention got about two teens apiece.
Adapting the subject to the workplace, he has become a speaker at business and government gatherings. Davis even attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which gave him a three-paragraph article on its front page Dec. 30. ("Stuck at work during the holidays? Balance a quarter on your business card.")
Davis said his goal is to enhance the work environment. He doesn't encourage goofing off all day. There's an inherent value to knowing "Louie, Louie" on a touch-tone phone (press 111-66-999-66), multiple rubber band shooting and marker top whistling.
Davis has learned that some companies respond better to his humor than others. "I insist they see my video first. Some companies have been surprised. It depends on their particular business culture," he said.
Aside from a brief stint with a temporary agency, Davis has little actual experience in the corporate world. After getting a degree in philosophy ("my first useless skill"), he went to Ringling Brothers' clown college in Florida. He spent four-and-a-half years with the circus, then struck out on his own.
In a moment of inspiration, he approached the Peace Corps with a proposal to clown in villages where volunteers were stationed. "I offered my show to any place that would feed me, house me and put an audience in front of me." In South America, Africa and China, he clowned in village squares, churches, orphanages and leper colonies.
When he returned to the states, he landed a part in Disney's Radio City Music Hall production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," as Happy (character insight: "He's fat, and he likes it.") He worked for Disney World, then at the Knoxville World's Fair, where he met his wife, a mime.
Eleven years ago his wife decided she wanted to go back to school, so they moved to New Hampshire, where Davis said he had no idea how he was going to make a living.
"A little bit of insanity helps," he said about being self-employed. "Plus a willingness to take the bad with the good. You have feast times and famine times, when you don't get a regular paycheck."
The useless skills idea has carried him through the '90s.
"Everybody needs to feel valued," he said. "When I come along and say `Let's do something totally useless,' it's a great relief."
As part of a deal with a publisher that supplies school book fairs, Davis' first project was "Totally Useless Skills for Kids." It got the attention of People magazine, which did an article on him in 1991.
The criteria for any useless skill, whether it's for kids or executives are these: It has to be fun, it has to be easy to do. It has to be safe, non-competitive and non-addictive. It can't require any special materials. And it must have no redeeming value other than momentary entertainment.
"I don't talk motivation," he said. "I offer corporate entertainment to companies that believe in lightening up. Good humor helps in the office."