I don’t see the point of living unless there is something I can do better than anyone else can or unless I can do something that nobody else can do.” Carry Me Down - M.J. Hyland
When I read these words a few weeks ago I felt totally inadequate. I could think of nothing in which I am Best In Class. I do recall a period during my childhood when I decided to read one article a day from the shelf of Encyclopedia Brittanicas in our house. My goal was to know everything there was to know. I reasoned that although this might take some time, I could, through sheer doggedness, become the cleverest person in the world. I remember getting to ‘Bee’ and even using the information for a school project but the teacher’s comments in red warned me about swallowing rather than digesting content and I gave up soon after, never to consume the sum of all human knowledge.
The thought continued to gnaw. Surely there must be something I can do to gold standard, a special skill which I’ve steadily perfected? Not a work competence or a party trick (Excel experts and fire eaters don’t count) but a kind of mastery which lands between innate and learned, a well-honed example of pattern recognition or muscle development like pinning down local accents to within a mile or drawing a geometric circle?
And then it came to me. Decanting. Years of transferring cereals, pasta, flour, sugar, coffee, lentils, spices, washing-up liquid, toiletries – more or less anything branded - into a glass jar or bottle have had an impact. My cupboards are my witness. I can gauge exactly how much will be left over or under, an intuitive level of maths and physics which escaped me as a student. However, as soon as I began asking others about their personal special skill, my own seemed less uncommon. Lots of people can do what I can do. In fact, some can do it with knobs on.
One person reported using water, butter and chopped onion so often when cooking that he now judges a gram-perfect measure of each by sight alone (and likes a lot of gravy?). Another has spent years ‘snagging’ and can now see misalignment at a mile: he walks around our wonky world squinting at architraves and door frames, surreptitiously straightening pictures in stranger’s houses.
Then there’s the person who can fast-forward through an ad break to within a fractional second of the programme’s titles; the one who can’t help but note every tiny continuity error that the film’s Continuity Supervisor missed; and the one with such meticulous visual recall that he can specify the detail of a room interior with astounding accuracy many decades after a fleeting visit.
I loved hearing about a friend's ten-second crafting of bows and knots from empty crisp packets while sitting at uncleared pub tables, and an Airbnber’s origami-level folding of fitted sheets. My partner has fashioned, over time, a facial expression which when pulled is guaranteed to make any child under five laugh. Even a screaming baby. Whenever I see a grouchy or weeping kid on a bus or in a supermarket queue suddenly break into a smile, I know who the instigator is.
Some of the skills that people listed were more than just special. One friend claims she can make a journey on multiple sections of public transport, add up the durations of each stage and arrive ten minutes earlier than the full tally. An in-law says she can tell if a dog is French by looking into its eyes. It may be more appropriate to file these under ‘witchcraft’.
I concluded that most of us have developed a knack for something which deserves acclaim but is of little use. That was before a cousin described to me her own particular skill of never worrying. Ever. I have seen this for myself. Despite all the usual pressures (family, property, nasty neighbours, illness, legal issues) she can sleep right through the night, every night. Her philosophy is simple: things always work themselves out in the end so why worry in advance? Like a slug in a downpour eyeing up a snail’s shell this is, for me, an impossible fantasy. It is indeed, the most special of special skills.