How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work

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Welcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew

[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Andrew writes:It began, as brilliant decisions generally do, in a bar. A Saturday evening, over drinks with two friends, a few months into my first real job (for the benevolent media magnates that still pay my salary). Why not, one of us spat out, drive to New York City? Uh, right now? Yeah, right now! One of us had a car. We’d need music for the 10-hour (each way), international journey. And, oh yeah, passports. Off we went.Sunday early morning we arrived in Manhattan, walked around in a daze until very late Sunday night, then drove back to Toronto, arriving minutes before my Monday shift.That I hadn’t slept since Friday night could easily be offset with a quick shower and several swigs of Jolt Cola which my colleague poured into me. And, oh, I would wear a suit, something neither I nor anyone else would conceive of wearing in the newsroom, unless heading out for an interview. But the improbable vision of young Andrew in a suit at work would distract my senior editors, I hoped, from the snoring.As it turned out, the caffeine jolt and the adrenalin rush of the whole experience kept me awake, and in retrospect, I doubt that I would have done anything differently.But I’m guessing it wouldn’t win me any awards for professionalism.Megan Hustad responds:The suit was a good call. I got promoted once because I was between apartments, living out of a duffel bag, and the suit I wore twice a week for a month because it hid stains and didn’t wrinkle prompted my boss to imagine I was going on a lot of interviews. This has historically been the best argument for wearing a suit, after all – it communicates you’re going places, and little else. Suits obscure all appetites other than ambition. Horatio Alger and other early American capitalists were nuts about suits.In any event: Children, if you took a long, hot shower and still smell of beer, consider a suit. Don’t do as I once did and show up in an orange (orange that highlighted my bloodshot eyes!), moth-eaten wool turtleneck. Uselessness rating: 1For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: Garth

Welcome to the Working Week 3: Garth

[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Garth writes:My first job out of college was writing for what was essentially a dot-com. In ways I wasn’t really aware of at the time, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. This delusion was encouraged by a mildly “fun” corporate culture and the fact that I could churn out a good chunk of the publication in about five hours of concentrated work, to general hosannas from my editors. I was working a lot faster than my predecessors. This left me with about three hours to kill every day; I didn’t want to take on added duties for the same paycheck.This is a fairly common predicament in American office life, I’m pretty sure; we become victims of our own efficiency. The problem was, I wasn’t into Solitaire or Minesweeper, blogs didn’t really exist yet, and part of my job involved reading four newspapers first thing in the morning, so that wasn’t an option for camouflaging my long periods of inactivity. I tried to read novels at my desk, but had a hard time concentrating with the computer screen right in front of me.Here’s what I came up with (ah, the callow brilliance of the 23-year-old!): I would work like a mule from 8:30ish to 1:30ish, print up my work, and carry it off to the office cafeteria to edit. Around 2:15, after a quick sandwich (eating on the clock), I’d go to a nearby park and sit in the grass and read a book until 3:30 or so. At which point I’d come back to the office to publish.I think I thought of work as a fee-for-service model. I completed my duties, I got paid. And okay, maybe I was stretching lunch just a little bit. Of course, I was away from my desk for two solid hours, and to anyone who saw me lolling in the park, I’d look like a student or trustafarian. Then again, I did get some great reading done that year. I got paid to read War & Peace!Megan Hustad responds:You’re weird. Minesweeper is a great game. Anyhow, the fee-for-service model works fine if superiors are oblivious and you aren’t hoping for a future in the industry. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell whether anyone is noticing. If your superiors are passive-aggressive or otherwise chickenhearted, they’ll mumble about you behind your back for months but never say anything to you directly. If they did notice, your callow brilliance probably worked their nerves. This is just one reason why business success books written throughout the twentieth century advocated acting smart, sure, but never too smart. “Excess intelligence,” wrote Peter Engel in The Overachievers (1976), “is a very sly asset.” Indeed.More importantly, people who take on added duties for the same paycheck tend to go on to have the most interesting careers. I was surprised — but perhaps shouldn’t have been — to discover that Helen Gurley Brown (1962’s Sex and the Single Girl and 1964’s Sex and the Office) went on and on and on and on about this. She believed exploitation had its uses. Uselessness rating: 3For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew

Welcome to the Working Week 2: Emre

[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Emre writes:The joyous Sunday nights at college became my biggest tormentors upon joining the ranks of working people in New York. I’d get the blues every Sunday around 9 p.m., and in an effort to stave off Monday would stay up really late – usually drinking and watching TV.One such Sunday, I was so preoccupied with reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that I did not even leave my bed the whole day – except, of course, to hit the toilet, get more coffee, make Bloody Marys and nibble on some cheese. The whole day passed and before I realized it, the book was finished, it was 4:30 a.m. on Monday, and I was thoroughly exhausted and depressed by the outcome. I called my boss, left a semi-drunk, highly strung-out message saying something along the lines of, “Dear Boss, it’s 4:30 in the morning, I cannot sleep and am terribly depressed. If I come to work tomorrow, I might go crazy. I am taking a mental-health day,” and hung up.When I went to work on Tuesday everyone seemed very concerned about my well being. My boss said it was totally OK to take mental-health days as I saw fit. And I thought, “it worked!” Or did it?Megan Hustad responds:I’m going to say yes, it did. Probably. But only because on an average day you were pretty reliable and conscientious. (If you remembered to call in with your regrets at 4:30 a.m., drunk, yes, I’m guessing “conscientious” applies.)You ever notice how some people like to arrive at the office a little late, say, fifteen to thirty minutes late, but every single day? And then there are those who are already stationed, pouring their second cup of coffee, always at 8:55? The first group, often, tends to think they’re getting away with something. (Or that being blasé about hauling ass to work in the morning is akin to joining the Wobblies. Subversive!) But truth is, making a habit of fudging procedure generally backfires. (There are brilliant exceptions, but…takes too long to explain here.) When the boom comes down, it comes down hard, and the chronically late types find themselves nitpicked and chastised for minor infractions. Seemingly more buttoned-down types, however, get to deviate wildly from norm on occasion, take huge allowances, or commit major indiscretions, and — more often than not — get away with it.Oh, and it’s not only that mental-health days are sometimes necessary. Here’s a line from John Wareham’s 1980 Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter: “Sometimes fail to arrive at all: your absence can be the talisman of your presence.” A perfect attendance record won’t get you the corner office, he argued, and if you’re also seen at every last party, you should probably make a point of not showing up once in a while. (In other words, don’t be all Eva Longoria and get dressed for every “hey, there’s a new Treo model, we’re rolling out the red carpet!!!” event to which you’re invited.) I like this advice. Uselessness rating: 2For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew

Welcome to the Working Week 1: Max

[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Max writes:When I finished college, I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to Los Angeles, where she was to attend grad school. Fortuitously, some buddies of mine from high school were headed to L.A. as well. I found an apartment with them and we set out looking for jobs. At the time, I felt singularly unqualified to do anything in particular despite just a couple of months before having been handed a diploma that had cost into the six figures.In L.A., of course, when you look aimlessly for employment, you land in the entertainment industry, which is exactly what happened to my friends and me. As I began my job hunt, I was sufficiently dazzled by this prospect even though I had never up until that point considered acting, directing, or screenwriting. As I would soon find out, if you’re not the “talent” in Hollywood, you’re just another guy at a desk.I landed at a second-rate agency in Beverly Hills as an assistant for a newly hired literary agent. We’ll call him Bert. I was so clueless that every mundane detail was a revelation: “We send out thirty copies of this script to production companies!?” “I’m supposed to call your client and tell him ‘I have Bert on the line for you?'” As I soon realized that the job mostly entailed getting coffee and related menial tasks and looking busy when the head of the firm came through, I pushed for anything that would make the hours there bearable. I got along with my fellow assistants but the bosses tended to look beyond me into the distance when I talked to them. Attempting to play to my strengths, I asked Bert if I could read some scripts.I tore into them ruthlessly. Part of this was because these scripts were undoubtedly bad – heist and car chase rehashes – and part of it was because I had never read a script before and had no idea what they looked like. I produced pages of notes cataloging logical falacies, stilted dialog, and poor character development (this for a knock-off of Vin Diesel-vehicle The Fast and the Furious) and included lots of snarky asides. I handed the notes off to Bert and he never mentioned them again.From there my trajectory was decidedly downward. I was transferred to another agent, in a move that I now realize was intended to punish her poor performance – give her the worst assistant so she knows she’s on thin ice – and then ultimately “laid off” to punish her further. From there, I headed down the path of temp work and retail before turning things around by going back to school. As it has been for many, my first brush with Hollywood was humbling.Megan Hustad responds:Ever heard of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Me, too! I was an assistant at Vintage Books, and my boss handed me the manuscript (for the fourth in the series, I think, but none had been published in the U.S. yet) and asked me to make six copies. I was to keep one, distribute the rest, and read overnight. That was big clue Nos. 1-6; seldom were so many souls asked to weigh in on a manuscript overnight. But no, I strolled in the following morning with this assessment: “I dunno, it seems ‘small’ to me. I just can’t picture the audience at all.” I may have added an aside about library ladies too, but I’ve suppressed the memory, so I couldn’t tell you.Thing is, the impulse to cough up withering assessments of proposals, scripts, or what have you, is strong. Especially when you’re employed in a creative industry but mainly engaged in menial tasks– how else, you think, can I help people understand that I’m capable of so, so much more than I’m being asked to do? This is what I learned, however, after eventually quitting Vintage (because my, ahem, “career” there had stalled out) and reading a lot of success manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, when snark was first in vogue: It’s actually very difficult to make positive and affirming statements, using American English, and still sound like you have a brain. Very demanding, intellectually. I mean, Lincoln had it down, but it didn’t come easy. You basically have to practice. Uselessness rating: 4For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew

Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job Foibles

The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble “Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.” It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What’s refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn’t attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad’s meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we’ve invited Ms. Hustad to give us some “Usefulness Training” based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She’ll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we’ll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.

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