Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How to Be Useful


How to Be Useful is an interesting little book that recaps the highlights of success literature in the 20th century. I read it in parallel with Rework, which takes a very 21st century approach to business and work, and struck an interesting contract.  Some of Paul Graham's essays such as The Power of the Marginal also came into my mind as counter-arguments.  The initial snag of this book for me was the quirky cover and fetching title. How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work. Well, I consider myself a beginner, I certainly hope to be useful, and I definitely don't want to hate work, so this seemed like the book for me!

I had a wonderful and rich childhood and education (both of which prepared me well for software engineering) but I had little previous exposure to the office and the corporate institution, so this book was a helpful aggregate of others' hard-won (and occasionally gimmicky) thoughts on the subject. I also found relevant the experiences the author included from her own time in publishing, which seems to be far more ruthless and careerist than software, but similarly structured.

The structure of the book is interesting. The chapters follow a chronological progression in the time of the literature being examined. They also roughly follow a progression in the duration of employment at one position, from making striking first impressions to firing yourself in preparation for moving onwards and upwards.

The main resolution I took from the reading is that if you take how special and unique and interesting you are and shove it for a bit, and get busy to solving other people's problems and making their lives easier, professional success hopefully follows.
  • On Being a PoseurThis chapter makes a solid argument for it being morally sound and commendable to pursue a successful career, separate from base material desires, and to earnestly strive with all your capabilities, not just "hard work", for the things you want to achieve. It also criticizes the ironic detachment and disdain young and educated people sometimes have for professional life. Why try to act like you don't care about the things you care about? There isn't enough time for irony.
  • Dodging the Great Failure ArmyAn interesting chapter that focuses on Andrew Carnegie and the dawn of white-collar work. The bit that spoke to me the most was that while we are each multi-faceted and endlessly fascinating people, of great individual worth and virtue, you perhaps shouldn't be your uninhibited natural self in your professional position. To quote: "Forget yourself, he essentially said, and maybe try being somebody else a few hours a day. Maybe somebody better than you."
  • Party Tips for the Nouveau Riche
    The best ready advice from this chapter was that acting questions both makes you a better conversationalist and less overbearing to your co-workers, it's a good way to find your bearings in an organization.
  • On Near Universal Self-Absorption
    "Why talk about what we ant?  That is childish. Absurd.  Of course, you are interested in what you want.  You are eternally interested in it.  But no one else is."
  • The Master Mind
    This chapter discusses building a valuable circle of friends.  "Once you've found people with whom you can openly, sincerely discuss what you wish for, you spend less time dwelling on the pedestrian events of the day, or the smell of your cubicle neighbor's tuna sandwiches, and more time talking about things you actually want to bring into existence."
  • Checking Yourself at the Door
    On the advantages of dressing in upper-middle class styles: "While everyone else wrung their hands about how bad, how very sad, it was that all America was conforming, these thinkers started toying with the notion that blending in actually has its advantages.  Indeed, it has a kind of subversive power."
  • When It's Not Just About You
    Anecdote: "The downside to meritocracy is that those born on third base think they hit a triple, and everyone else is subject to self-loathing."
  • Interlude (Why Most Everything from the 1970's Doesn't Help)
    Shortly: everything written then presumed people were dumb.  And presuming that your audience is dumb never made for a quality product.
  • Self-Deprecation
    This chapter advertises self-deprecation as a useful tactic, especially for surviving "So where did you go to school" type conversations.  I like to think that this isn't necessary in 2013, but it may be.
  • On DefenseOne of my goals in life is to remain fearless enough to admit my errors freely and move to correct them directly.  Intellectual honesty above much else.  This chapter advertises a similar ethic.
  • The Uses of No
    As a software engineer, I love the concept of "firing yourself".  I think that the highest professional goal a programmer should shoot for in a given position is writing such excellent software, tests, tooling, and documentation that you can simply walk away from your duties and have them keep themselves running.  How much more courageous and less petty than making yourself necessary.

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