Derek Sivers

Art is useless, and so am I


Art is useless by definition. If it was useful, it would be a tool.

For the past 19 years, I was obsessed with being useful. That one measure drove all of my daily decisions: “How can I be the most useful to the most people today?”

It served me well, but it has its downsides. It kept me from playing, and doing things just for me. It’s no coincidence that I stopped making music 19 years ago. It didn’t qualify as the most useful thing I could be doing.

At the end of 2016, I stopped answering questions by email. It was like quitting a full-time job.

I didn’t mean to become useless. I just wanted a little more me-time.

I started seriously learning my first foreign language, immersing myself in it for many hours a day. Totally useless to anyone else, but I love it. Now I realize why all my previous attempts to learn a language didn’t happen. It was always low-priority under all of my useful goals.

I started playing music again, for the first time in 19 years. Not trying to be famous this time. No goals. No results. No care whether anyone else ever hears it or not. This is just for me. Just playing for its own sake, and loving it.

It’s hard to relax into this mindset, after 19 years of the opposite.

It’s such a luxury to not think about you, out there, and how you might value me.

At the top of every page of my website, I used to have an elevator-pitch: a sentence saying how I might be useful to the stranger browsing my site. But no more. I erased it last week.

For the time being, I’m nobody’s tool.

P.S. I heard the “art is useless” idea from a conversation with Kevin Kelly. When he said it, I stopped in my tracks and disagreed, so I’m guessing you might, too. But let the idea sink in a bit, and notice that it doesn’t say “worthless”. Art can be valuable, and someone might find a concrete use for it, but usefulness was not its purpose.

The original source of the “art is useless” idea is Oscar Wilde. See see J.J. Vicars’ comment, below, with a letter further explaining the thought.