The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the Humanities

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the HumanitiesBusiness problems are in most cases solved using specialised business knowledge. Practical managerial discussions are to the point, directed towards the problem and utilitarian—aimed at solving problems and improving the bottom line. But in that goal-directed behaviour, management often loses purpose.1

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager, you should invest time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enhances the individual.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once beautifully expressed the importance of useless knowledge:2

I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

To enlarge and sweeten the fruits of management, business people need to embrace so-called useless knowledge. This knowledge is not the type of useless knowledge that hits you in the face when reading the trivialities on Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. The canon of useless knowledge is deeper than that and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.

There is no such thing as useless knowledge

The term useless knowledge is problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge, and a better term would be indirect knowledge, the type of knowledge that creates a holistic person and helps to solve problems through introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, excellent knowledge of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of philosophy of science helps to understand ‘evidence-based management’. Understanding ethical dilemmas and the solutions proposed by philosophers might prevent managers from making morally wrong decisions. A well-grounded appreciation of the arts beyond economic value helps in making beautiful products.

The best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is Apple computer. In the words of Steve Jobs:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing …

Useless knowledge makes you question the certainties of life; it creates a thoughtful and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

Lucid managers embrace useless knowledge and study the classics and the humanities. Read some of Plato’s dialogues and learn from Socrates how deviant behaviour leads to innovation.


  1. This post is based on an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw by Jonah Kahn. 

  2. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (1935). 

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