Although managing a business can be very complicated, the solutions for solving problems often seem deceivingly simple. Managers resolve even the most complex issues with a two-by-two matrix. 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 enlightens 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 more profound than that and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.
The words “useless knowledge” are problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge, and a better term would be indirect knowledge. This the type of knowledge creates a holistic person and helps to solve problems by introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, excellent understanding 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 creating beautiful products.
The best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is an 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.