Things that any Tom, Dick or Harry would know how to do

“John Smith,” “Bob,” and “George,” are very “common” names. That is, they were probably common once, but now, even though they have largely fallen out of use, we all still have a cultural memory of them being “common” and “normal-sounding.” We even use them when we’re trying to think up non-specific names for use in examples or clever aliases. Who among us wasn’t given a set of dummy data to enter into a spreadsheet in grade nine business class that included names like “Bob,” “George” and “Harry” in the “names” column? (Side note: the next time I need a clever alias, I’m going with “John Q. Taxpayer.”)

This summer, I started composing a short list of things I don’t know how to do. Of course, there are lots of things I don’t know how to do that could have gone on this list. It’s easy to come up with specific professional skills that I don’t know how to do: I don’t know how to commit brain surgery, milk a cow, draft legislation, pilot a Tardis … the list could go on indefinitely. But those sorts of things are not what I had in mind with this list.

This list was specifically for “common” skills—skills that are common in the way that the names “Harry,” “Bob” or “George” are common. That is, we think of these skills as being ones that most people know how to do (more-or-less), but in reality, they have fallen out of common use, or maybe never were very common.

For example, in books or movies, when someone is thrown a rope and told to tie a person or a boat or something up, every character instantly knows exactly what knot to tie and how to do it, without thinking, even if it was totally implausible for that character to know how to do that at all. In other movies, cars are hot-wired in seconds. Locks are picked with the use of only bobby pins, and by people who you would not expect to be able to do that. If you drop any character from any movie in the woods, after a brief montage, she will have caught a fish, and be frying it over a fire that she started without matches.

As for me, if I ever even lost the keys to my own apartment, I’d have no flying clue how to get back in.

For the record, I do realise that I shouldn’t aspire to master a set of skills simply because it would make me more useful in an action-adventure movie. That said, there’s a saying, that if you only have a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails. I wonder how many inefficiencies I have endured and problems I have left unsolved simply because the set of skills or tools I possess is limited. I remember my Grandpa Searles always used to carry a knife around with him, and it was useful to him all the time.

With the exception of juggling, I have no concrete plans right now to learn how to do any of these things, but they are all things that I would eventually like to know how to do. After finding this list again, I’m strongly tempted to start carrying around a pocket-knife, a length of rope and a bump key set. Maybe I can look up some YouTube videos for interesting ways to use them.

Here’s the list for your consideration.

Things I don’t know how to do

  • Clean a fish
  • Sharpen a knife
  • Juggle
  • Do handsprings/backflips/etc.
  • Drive a car with standard transmission
  • Change a car’s oil
  • Change a flat tire
  • Anything related to automobile maintenance, really
  • Diving (I can swim a number of strokes decently well, tread water and even do flip-turns, but I could never make myself dive)
  • Do my taxes (I just go to an accountant. Let him deal with it.)
  • Start a fire with only rocks
  • Tie knots
  • Tie different kinds of ties (I only know one)
  • Tie a bow tie
  • Hot-wire a car
  • Pick a lock
  • Dance

If you have some other suggestions for things that most of us probably don’t know how to do, but might be a useful thing to know in certain contexts, please leave it in the comments.

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The Grey Literature

This is the personal blog of Benjamin Gregory Carlisle PhD. Queer; Academic; Queer academic. "I'm the research fairy, here to make your academic problems disappear!"

3 thoughts on “Things that any Tom, Dick or Harry would know how to do”

  1. I’ve done my own taxes for the last 3 years. Last year I did Nick’s as well. It’s really not very hard, especially if you use Turbo Tax, which is nice because it’s free for Students. I suggest you try it this year rather than paying for it. It only takes an hour or two.

  2. Oh, and knowing how to break into a car is vital. (Especially when you are in the middle of nowhere on your honeymoon. . .true story.)

  3. Oh! Yes you’re right. I definitely want to learn how to break into a car.

    I second-guess myself way too much when doing taxes. I never think the answer is correct. For the time being at least, it’s worth the $30 to be able to shove an envelope of receipts and papers at the guy at H&R Block and forget about it.

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