September 11, 2008


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How to Be Useful, A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, by Megan Hustad (2008, Houghton Mifflin Company, 232 pages)
By Amy Diaz

Looking back, I know I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of post-college work.

I spent too much time bitching about the bosses and not enough time making myself stand out to them, too much time worried about today’s work and not enough time thinking about the trajectory of my career. It turns out that all that liberal arts education might have prepared me really well for catching pop culture references to 18th-century novels but it didn’t so much prepare me for life in the business world. And don’t be mistaken, if you work (exchange labor for money) you are in business, even if part of that labor involves snark.

How to Be Useful would have been perfect for the 22-year-old me and is perfect for those currently standing at the cusp of real life (post-college or post-high school — the rules of navigating work more similar than different across the employee board). It’s even handy for those of us who have been out in the world a while, screwing stuff up and occasionally hating work. How to Be Useful does include handy tips (“do polish your shoes,” “do realize your desk is your wardrobe,” “do be charming,” “do remain aware, nonetheless, that someone will always hate you”) but it is in large part a reader of what Megan Hustad calls “success literature” (everything from Dale Carnegie to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that you’ll find in the business section of the bookstore on shelves labeled things like “leadership” and “management”). She looks at books on work from the middle of the 19th century through the 2000s and culls from them the core message, zipping you through 150-some years of business-self-help in the size of your average snarky 20something memoir (which this book also a little bit is). As much as anything else, it’s just interesting to see all this thought about work in one place. Work is in many ways the central activity of your life. It’s worth some examination — particularly, examination of how you can make the whole endeavor more worthwhile for you.

By using friends as an example of what not to do and using these decades of authors’ advice as examples of what to do, Hustad creates some opportunity to seriously think about your whole approach to your job. The extensive amount of research she’s done (the bibliography by itself is a useful resource for pulling yourself out of a work funk) really helps to get you critically thinking about approaches to your job specifically, your industry and your career. It’s a great refresher for not just the kids but the older workers stuck in a rut or those re-entering the go-to-an-office-every-day part of the workforce after years of self-employment or non-employment. Perfect for those who fear the motivational cheerleading of most work advice books, How to be Useful is an approachable, funny, delightfully nerdy examination of motivational cheerleading. AAmy Diaz