In Praise of Goofing Off

They say the greatest portend of doom is "Hey y'all, watch this!" But I've recently concluded that it's the most efficient means of skills acquisition.

Want to learn CGI? Photoshop your brother on a baboon. And do it again, and again, and again. Because it's funny every time and, if you lean into it, it'll get faster every time.

And share it on social to get that dopamine hit that says you're getting better each time.

Want to learn to producing, directing, writing, acting, gaffing, wardrobe, VFX, make-up, sound design, SFX, editing, composing, multi-track recording, virtual instruments, and mixing? Make a spoof your favorite movie scene. It's going to be terrible and people are going to mask their confusion with, "Wow, that's great!" and then go back to their lives, wondering why you're wasting your life. But the experience and skill gained in the months it took to make that 2 minute clip is incalculable. You'll also learn if that joke was really worth it (You'll think it was, because you have to.)

Motivations for Practice

There are many motivations for practicing a skill; two of them are (1) it's something you love or (2) it's something that's so silly, the over-investment becomes most of the joke.

Practicing on something you love can work, but "man is giddy thing". If the intimate, wispy love you've held in your imagination finally wafts to the surface and you try to acquire a skill at the same time you're trying to make your greatest idea become your greatest work, it's going to suck. And it'll discourage you right out of your craft. As one writing coach says, "Don't practice on your baby."

The other option is to bring the highest expression of your present skill to a gag. When the stakes are low. When nobody cares. When the end result doesn't matter. When you're just doing it to be funny and impress your friends.

Or even better, impress you're crush Nothing makes you push yourself like trying to catch the attention of the person who's had yours for weeks, months, or years on end. Nothing will come of that, of course, because that's not how it works. But, you'll still have the skill you practiced.

Goofing off also has the quality of inherent pith. Jokes are short. A quick stream of color up to the sky and, wait for it, bang! Off goes the firework and it's over. There's none of the ponderous, slow-cooking of dramatic introspection where we see the intricate mechanization of human soul plodding through the labyrinth of meaning.

Nope. Goofing off is set-up, punch line, you're done. Skills acquisition through goofing off is the original micro learning. It also has the virtue of being the only form of micro learning that's not nakedly patronizing and obstructively tedious.

And that's another virtue of goofing off: It can't be formalized. A joke isn't funny the second time. You'll sometimes see people get caught in a goof-off loop. The flash of inspiration that lights the craft fuse takes off with such brilliance, it surprises even them. So they just want to do that over and over and over again. Those people never actually get better at their craft because they're not practicing their craft, they're practicing that one punch line.

But that's nowhere near as bad as as the would-be educator who actually plots a goofing off activity into their syllabus. Goofing off and syllabi are antitheses. You can't goof off on schedule. You goof off with the express purpose of getting off schedule.

Goofing off channels our natural rebellion. Sure, you're supposed to be doing biology, but suddenly you unlocked the secret to drawing perfect catch lights in a human eye. And you know, if you draw those eyes on both side of an elephants tail, you've made a face out of an ass! Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!

When a student shows that to us, we can roll our eyes all the way to the back of our skulls and wonder --with great expirations-- what it's going to take to get people to focus, but we should also note that we can't draw a human eye.

(There's also an argument to be made that if a publisher is going to put a picture of an elephant's butt in a textbook, they're practically commissioning delinquency.)

Or I might give exhausted side-eye to someone who who's going to spend 850 words writing about why goofing off is valuable instead of, let's say, practicing for his gig tonight. But that's also 850 more words than he wrote yesterday. And he also learned that "obstructively" and "antitheses" are real words.

That's the value of goofing off: it's not in it; it's from it.

(Elephant Ass photo by Cori Knopp, who, when asked if she could put some eyes on an elephant's poop deck replied, "Not exactly the messages I was expecting to kick off my week, but I will absolutely do this.")

David Knopp

David Knopp