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

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Hint to recent grads or those about to graduate soon: While your well-intentioned friends and family will inevitably give you books like Oh, the Places You'll Go! and How to Win Friends to ready you for the real world, you might want to add Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work to your summer reading.

Hustad pored over hundreds of years of “success literature” to compile the best advice for those starting out in the working world (and for those of us who’ve been in the grind awhile) from people like steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, etiquette maven Emily Post and even crackerjack Steven Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.). She also has no problem trashing authors who doled out garbage on paper.

There’s no good office politics advice from the 1970s because everything written then presumed that people were dumb.* Not just dumb, but slobbering bundles of infantile need. The psychotherapist Eric Berne can be blamed for starting the trend in the mid-1960s by publicizing a concept he called “transactional analysis,” which held that people were forever walking around seeking “strokes.” Strokes, he said, were “the fundamental unit of human interaction,” and just as infants needed physical touch in order to survive and thrive, so too adults were hooked on getting stroked, though in a more metaphorical, psychological way.
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Readers might learn a thing or two - especially how to respond as you're asked to wash out office coffee pots or un-collate the copies you just collated - when you've just finished a 150-page thesis on Nabokov. Hustad even tells us to get used to the highly paid office doofus that makes everyone wonder how he can change his underwear by himself every morning. It's part of the working world -- and we can only adjust our attitude toward work in the end.

Yes, the book's full of little nuggets that we've all heard before. And there's nothing groundbreaking in it, really, but Hustad makes the advice entertaining and easy to read. You may even have an "aha" moment or two seeing yourself in the pages - and acting the exact opposite way you should be to keep your sanity in your office cube.

We especially cracked up at Helen Gurley Brown's office advice:

Remembering a young woman who would seat herself at a conference table with a 'little red alligator notebook' in which she's take 'smashing little alligator notes,' Gurley Brown recommended you bring similar props to meetings, because then you could tend to your own business while also picking up points for style and diligence. She also suggested that girls who got antsy in meetings (because no one cared what they had to say) do Kegel exercises. Her larger point being that one should just sit, stare, and nod dully at the appropriate intervals, or doodle, but that it's possible to use their time for one's own ends.

There it is -- the advice is yours to take or leave. So the next time you're stuck in another boring meeting, now you know why some people seem really into the subject matter at hand.