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

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There's a lot of career advice out there. Much of it dumb. But what if someone read all the advice books—over a hundred years' worth—and put all the good ideas in one place? Could you finally escape the cube? Stop mailing things? Be happier?

In How to Be Useful, Megan Hustad dismantles the myths of getting ahead and helps you navigate the murky waters of office life. Humorous yet wise, irreverent yet marvelously practical, this book will help you learn

Why "just being yourself" is a terrible idea.

How to be smart, but not too smart.

Why you shouldn't be "nice."

When not to be good at your job.

How to screw up with grace and dignity.

Why shoes matter.

The right and wrong ways to talk trash about yourself.

That ambition, practiced wisely, is a noble thing.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Just in time for college graduation comes a career guide for the smart liberal-arts grad who believes such guides are nothing more than a pile of self-help mush." Newsweek

"Very soon, despite the difficulty of job hunting in tough economic times, newly minted graduates will march into Day One of their first real jobs . . . With some luck, these neophytes might meet with someone like Megan Hustad . . . Part study of best-selling advice literature, part collection of cautionary tales from herself and her peers, the book is an engaging blend of prescription and cultural history . . . Hustad manages to make the process of identifying your professional goals and then setting out to achieve them palatable—even hip." The Washington Post

"This smart little book is a wry new entry in the burgeoning literature of the new economy's workplace." The Chicago Tribune

"Author Megan Hustad combed through the dustiest self-help tomes for nuggets of wisdom that might actually apply to today's postcollegiates. The end result . . . has helpful career hints for associates and architect grunts alike." New York Magazine

"Most people wouldn't think that Dale Carnegie, Benjamin Disraeli and Paris Hilton belong in the same book; but they aren't Megan Hustad." The Globe and Mail

"A book that presents itself as a guide to workplace success but that is really a (frequently hilarious) meditation on the notion of ambition. " Guardian

"Hustad has done her homework, reading dozens of 'how to succeed' books, including some by such old-timers as Andrew Carnegie and Napoleon Hill sandwiched in with such relative newcomers as Stephen R. Covey and Donald Trump . . . the writing is bright [and] brassy." Booklist, ALA

"Every woman's guide to not hating work . . . full of timeless bits of mood-boosting wisdom." -Glamour

"Long story short: This is the book you'll want to travel back in time and press into the hands of your 22 year old self." - Galleycat

"A how-to guide for artsy young people with liberal arts degrees who [are] as bewildered by the realities of corporate life as [Hustad] had once been." - New York Observer

Rachel Dry
Part study of best-selling advice literature, part collection of cautionary tales from herself and her peers, the book is an engaging blend of prescription and cultural history…Hustad manages to make the process of identifying your professional goals and then setting out to achieve them palatable—even hip.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618713509
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/2/2008
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

MEGAN HUSTAD is a former book editor, former bookstore manager, and current freelance writer. Originally from the wilds of Minneapolis, she now lives in New York City. She is addicted to buying 50? midcentury paperbacks with interesting cover graphics, and should soon be able to boast the country’s largest private collection of bad vintage business books.

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Read an Excerpt

1 On Being a Poseur
Early Capitalists on Why Writing Business Letters Takes Longer Than Reading Them Does

Never write a long letter. A business man has not time to read it.—Cyrus West Field

One of the worst pieces of advice is "Just be yourself." You hear it a lot. Oh, you’re nervous about your new job? Don’t worry. Just be yourself. It comes from online career sites. ("The best preparation is really to be yourself.") It comes from well-meaning mothers. ("Just be your own sweet self.") It is so prevalent you can almost hear it in the breeze. Unfortunate, then, that it’s ill- suited to any number of life situations, but at no time and in no place is it more useless, more beside the point, more potentially destructive than the very moment when you’re starting a new job.
     Why it’s so awful takes some explaining. It certainly seems to be solid, all-American wisdom: Don’t put on some phony act and try to convince people you’re something you’re not. Don’t get yourself all worked up trying to impress, instead just be "natural," and then you’ll probably be more relaxed, and because you’re relaxed you’ll perform better, and best of all, because you’ve been being yourself the whole time, you’ll never have to explain, later on, why you’re not quite the same person you seemed to be before. It promises this, too: That any red-blooded individual who values forthrightness and honesty—who really knows quality when he or she sees it—will recognize your sincerity and appreciate you all the more for it. 
     One of the first clues that being yourself might not be the answer came to me when I started asking people who’d been working full-time for a while to describe what their first post-college jobs were like, and got dead air. Sometimes I got wounded stares, looks of near incomprehension. People squinted, as if trying to glimpse something through a dense, coastal fog. Their mouths opened but nothing came out while they waited for the right words to surface. Finally they would spit out a strangled cross between "Hah!" and "Huh!," mumble a few words about it being "interesting," grin, and quickly change the subject. Trying to attach adjectives to these dim memories, one interviewee told me, felt like coming across poetry you wrote at sixteen. How you thought then and how you think now is very, very different. But I soon discovered that if you simply ask people what kinds of tasks they handled at their first jobs, the words came more easily: They made photocopies. They stood next to the photocopier so they’d be ready for action when the 11" x 14" paper jammed. They pored over Excel spreadsheets until their eyes ached. They answered phones. They forced big smiles while they cried a little on the inside.
     They were not themselves, in other words.
     Part of the problem with being yourself is that you could be anyone. You could dress badly. You could be a shy daydreamer, or you could be a bubblehead. You might be the only person who thinks your comic stylings rival Will Ferrell’s. You might think your story about that lesbian bar in Amsterdam was a winner but your senior colleagues might not. So I started to wonder if this particular piece of nonwisdom was really as all- American as it sounds. Have we always been sending inexperienced young people into the capitalist lion’s den with the flimsy instructions to just be themselves?
     We haven’t. In the early days of the American office, it turns out, the advice was different. Flip through the first texts written to help the novice through entry-level employment, and you’ll find they were pretty much all agreed on one thing: Act a certain way, and you’d be going places. Behave in other ways, and your corporate overlords would lose interest in you, and very quickly. The steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, for one, was quite clear about what he wanted to see in young recruits, and in a speech called "A Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men," he offered up an interesting warning: Forget yourself, he essentially said, and maybe try being somebody else a few hours a day. Maybe somebody better than you.
     I was familiar with Carnegie’s track record—that he’d started the company that became U.S. Steel, that he’d made millions of dollars on the backs of thousands of coal miners, and that he was a short, pushy firecracker of a man who later felt somehow guilty about his piles of money. But I hadn’t expected to find him articulating a strong case for being, in essence, a total poseur—and for feeling no shame about it either. Looking at the train wrecks narrowly avoided by people feeling a little too at home on the job, I have to say that Carnegie was onto something. Striking a pose may be the best route for anyone hoping to emerge from corporate underlinghood with their dignity—and even, strangely, their sense of self—intact.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi 1 On Being a Poseur • 1 Early Capitalists on Why Writing Business Letters Takes Longer Than Reading Them Does

2 Dodging the Great Failure Army • 18 Orison Swett Marden on the Strange Power of Finding Something Nice to Say

3 Party Tips for the Nouveau Riche • 36 Etiquette and the Importance of Asking Questions

4 On Near Universal Self-Absorption • 53 How to Win Friends and Infl uence People by Recognizing What Navel-Gazers People Are

5 The Master Mind • 73 Napoleon Hill on the Proper Use of Friendship

6 Checking Yourself at the Door • 91 What Brooks Brothers and Midcentury Handwringing over Bland Conformity Reveal About Personal Style

7 When It’s Just Not About You • 108 Helen Gurley Brown on Having One’s Underwear Forcibly Removed

Interlude • 129 Why Most Everything from the 1970s Doesn’t Help

8 Self-Deprecation • 136 The Art of Humble Beginnings Stories

9 On Defense • 153 The Dark Heart of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

10 The Uses of No • 171 Donald Trump and “You’re Fired”

Epilogue • 190 Acknowledgments » 197 Bibliography • 199 Index • 224

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