Monday, June 16, 2008

How To Be Useful

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to make a Downtown Women's Club event at Barnes & Noble to hear Megan Hustad speak on her new book, How To Be Useful. Hustad is a soft-spoken veteran of the book publishing world, and extremely nimble with her words. Despite the interference of the cafe machinery, Hustad read a few excerpts and explained the process of writing a retrospective of 100 years of Success Literature.

Now that I've finished this book (and already re-read a few sections), I place this at the very top of my list of recommended Success books. I have a certain amount of envy that Hustad thought of the project first, but really she does a fantastic job in surveying a long list of advice books and distilling the essence of each down to its most useful principles. Through interviews with contemporary colleagues and research on her fellow Success authors, she deftly equips the reader with a range of situations for practical application of the proffered career advancement methods.

Hustad's writing
is at once intelligent, and easily digested. She adds a certain amount of fine dry wit to her work, as well as an icing of footnotes to flush out certain points. Any book she has gone over is helpfully included in the bibliography, for further reading, although this might be extraneous.

My personal favorite chapters are "2 - Dodging the Great Failure Army" and "8 - Self-Deprecation." In Chapter 2, we are introduced to Orison Swett Marden's ideas on being relentlessly cheerful and kind to everyone, from the CEO to the concierge. The idea is not new (Marden wrote in the early part of the 20th century), but the various applications of how to apply this optimism to career development is wonderfully explained. Marden's idea of the "Law of Attraction," the idea that people are drawn to the positive, is similar to the heart of "The Secret," but must less mystical. By applying pleasantries to our office mates, carefully and not gratuitously, one cultivates an air of camaraderie, and leaves the door open for others to follow suit. Chapter 2 is full of examples of how to deploy this cheerful method, as well as misguided attempts to avoid.

Chapter 8 covers the art of self-deprecation, which I think should be mandatory reading for new people in the office, particularly those guilty of over-sharing. Hustad here examines the rags-to-riches story, and how overcoming obstacles endears oneself to those around one, but conversely, stories about common problems can pile up and backfire on the teller. It's one thing to talk about overcoming a poor financial situation by winning a full scholarship to college, but another thing entirely to tell about one's embarrassing behavior while drunk last night on the way home from happy hour. As I was reading this chapter, I could feel myself cringe as I remembered telling self-deprecating stories that probably did more to decrease public opinion of myself rather that create a sense of "we've all been there" endearment.

I would highly recommend this book to career services offices, high school guidance offices, and any other place that prepares new graduates for the workforce. I'd add that this would make an excellent read for anyone who struggles with social interactions or anxieties, because of its easy to follow pedagogy on interpersonal communications. Even though it is written with career success in mind, the advice is extraordinarily useful in many situations from networking events to parties.

Cross-posted to the Women's Dish

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