I'm a talented untangler of tangled wires. And you?

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphprr2l McLike you, I assume, I possess a number of skills that I don't feel receive sufficient recognition. For example: I can read street signs from a greater distance than family or friends. I am good at untangling tangled wires, not that I get any praise for it. I can often tell what time it is, surprisingly accurately, without a watch. And I have a special talent for entering my PIN at cashpoints in a way that is both nonchalant yet resistant to thieves' prying eyes. Until recently, I'd assumed I'd go to my grave with these strengths unremarked, reduced to hoping that future historians might notice what my contemporaries had missed. But then I encountered the work of the humorist Andy Selsberg.

The way Selsberg tells it, he was in the bath, trying to decide on his next creative project, by asking himself what he was good at – because "everybody's good at something", right? This is a mantra of the self-esteem movement, and the kind of thing that makes certain rightwing commentators grind their teeth. (To them I say: "Hey! Great teeth-grinding! Well done!") But Selsberg took it literally. The result is You Are Good At Things, a checklist, in book form, consisting of hundreds of unsung skills, many of which you probably didn't realise you had – "noticing new haircuts", for example, or "remembering people's allergies".

"People often say the world is getting worse," Selsberg writes. But "thousands of people have mastered the art of getting people to move over a seat in movie theatres. Shouldn't they get a parade?"

This is, of course, a joke – other skills include "forcing people to acknowledge how adorable your baby's foot is" and "making a big production out of yawns". But it's one that triggers a genuine feeling of uplift. You may be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people who lack a certain skill are so unskilled as not to realise they're unskilled. (The most famous victim of this was the bank robber who told police, "But I wore the juice" – he thought smearing lemon juice on his face made it invisible to cameras, and was too inept a robber to realise how inept a robber he was.) Often, though, the reverse applies: a skill you do possess becomes so second-nature that it's rendered invisible, and you forget it's a skill.

Most of these, to be sure, aren't marketable. (Though who knows? Selsberg's "giving come-hither looks" and "bantering at barbecues" could surely be monetised.) But it's still cheering, in a slightly pathetic way, to conduct an inventory of one's own. Moreover, it highlights the oddness of the notion of "self-esteem". As the psychologist Paul Huack has noted, "cultivating self-esteem" invariably means tying one's sense of worth to being good at certain key things, which makes happiness conditional on not screwing up. The best bet is to replace "self-esteem" with self-acceptance. But if you must link your wellbeing to possessing skills, you might as well shoot for a comprehensive list – one that includes "sensing how many sheets the stapler can handle" and "offering guests something to drink right away". "The sum of these small virtuosities," Selsberg contends, "makes humanity human."

[First published in Guardian Weekend. Photo by dogbomb on Flickr.]


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Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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