Jacob Packert

Want to Learn Something New? Build Silly, Useless Stuff

You’ll be more motivated to learn if you’re building something a little silly

January 12, 2020

Here’s some advice: Don’t take everything so seriously— so high stakes.

Mikkel Malberg recently wrote:

I wish I could code. Well, how do you think anyone ever learnt anything? They put in some time. And, if you’re really serious about that wish, this is the only way to do it. But I don’t have the time! you say and you are wrong.

What you don’t have is either the motivation or a clear enough idea of how to start. — Mikkel Malmberg

When I’m learning something new, I need to be actually building something, but more than that — I need it to spark curiosity and passion.

Many tutorials are unexciting. But if I know that I’m building something, I can apply the learning to the thing I want to build and I’m much more motivated.

Maybe we could spice up tutorials. We don’t need to learn yet another weather app, to-do list, movie database or portfolio website.

We need ideas for tiny, silly things you can build your own version of and quickly see results — all while using and learning new technology.

I’ve talked a lot about learning to code. But nobody actually looks at my code. Well, my colleagues might when they help fix my bugs in code reviews, but that’s another story. They look at the (stupid) thing I made. The Random Crossfit* WOD Generator, where you click a button and get a workout. It’s not unique, but it works and I’ve used it while training with friends.

Or the most recent side-project: noa.kitchen, a tiny service to get today’s lunch menu at work in a fun way — responding to the fact that the most visited place on any corporate intranet is the food section.

I’m thinking of turning it into a CLI:

$ npm install -g noa kitchen

To get today’s lunch:

$ lunch

To get the whole week:

$ lunch — week

Who would ever use this? Probably nobody. Is it necessary? No. Is it silly? Yes.

Does it sound fun to build? Absolutely! I found something called Ink which is like React for CLI apps and I want to try it.

So build your silly little thing and show it to the world.

  • A drag-and-drop pizza builder? Sure. You can learn react-dnd while making that.
  • A list of your 10 favorite SNL videos? Great for building basic HTML, CSS and deploy and hosting skills.
  • A desktop app for generating random jokes? My friend actually built this for learning Electron. It’s amazing and fun!

I’m so grateful for the good people writing free tutorials. Teaching any subject is difficult, so I’m impressed there’s so much good content for learning to code out there. But it would be truly next-level if more guides were also a little fun or silly. If you know of any, please leave a comment with a link!

I think I would pay for a service where I could write in my idea for a stupid thing, plus the technology I want to learn, and then get steps to build that from someone who knows how. Wouldn’t that be amazing? A https://silly-tutorials.school or something like that!

Go build something silly. You’ll be more motivated to learn something while doing it and you’ll have a fun thing to show for it afterwards.

My current project is a web-scraper that pings the website of my local swimming pool and reports how many people are in the pool at that time, so I can build a graph and find the best time of the week to swim. I could also just, you know, not care and just head on down to the pool. But this is more fun!

Go do something silly. Happy building!


Written by Jacob Packert
I write about the Internet, tech, code and design.
Frontend Engineer & Senior Technical Advisor at Hello Great Works

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