Being useful

Excellent books have been written on how we should strive for work that incorporates mastery, autonomy, relationship and purpose. While I don’t disagree, I worry that these terms are each difficult concepts, making the whole message a bit hard to get your head around, let alone to propose steps to achieve.

I’d like to think about a much simpler idea – that we all want to be useful.

I believe that almost everyone cares about being useful, though their motivations may vary, for example:

  • Earning potential
  • Financial security
  • Security of status
  • A sense of purpose
  • Contributing to the world

If I look at parenting and our education system, an incredible amount of time is ultimately spent trying to make people useful. But it often isn’t acknowledged as that, and I think that not acknowledging it undermines our efforts. For example, trying to encourage students to gain formal qualifications, without highlighting the link between the qualification and usefulness, will reduce a student’s motivation, and eliminate opportunities to notice when there are better routes to usefulness.

In the past, I believe encouraging qualifications and getting students on a career track was the best way to guarantee usefulness. In today’s fast-changing world, there are very few careers that guarantee usefulness. Similarly, there are a lot more ways to be useful without formal qualifications.

As a result, I would love to see a renewed effort to look at how we teach usefulness, to children and to adults. I think that being useful is something that lots of people do naturally, but to differing degrees, and steps taken to help people become more useful will really improve their quality of life.

The sorts of skills that I believe promote usefulness are:

  • Mindfulness of other people’s problems
  • Looking out for the skills and knowledge that are missing
  • A willingness to learn new things, and persevere where others haven’t
  • Not limiting yourself to those situations where you know you will be rewarded (or being a Giver, as Adam Grant promotes in “Give or Take”)

There are many different ways to be useful, and so we need to avoid any one-size-fits-all solution. For example, programmes that help participants start their own business will be appropriate for some, but there are plenty of other ways to be useful – for example, in corporations, in the community, or in your family. Similarly, I’m not trying to discourage people from following their passions or strengths – if you can be useful doing something you love or are great at, you’ll find it easier and more satisfying.

I’d love to think more about what makes people useful, and how we can promote usefulness, so if any readers have good ideas or book recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

Finally, I’m sure that some people will consider the promoting of usefulness as mercenary or dehumanising. We do need to guard against that risk, and so I would actively avoid any attempt to maximise usefulness. There is more to life than being useful, and way more to each person than their usefulness, and I don’t consider that at odds with believing that the ability to be useful does improve our overall quality of life.

6 thoughts on “Being useful

  1. Michael Ashcroft

    I think at some dinner or other I mentioned the book by Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You, where he introduces the idea of building what he calls ‘career capital’. His thesis is that what makes us happy in work are those things that you list. However, those things are hard to achieve and require the acquisition of rare and valuable skills. These rare and valuable skills make us useful and give us more power over our working environment, which in turn lead to those attributes. This is in opposition to the ‘follow your passion’ mantra commonly seen these days. It’s fine to be have ‘be passionate about my work’ as a goal, but ‘follow your passion’ is a poor strategy to get there. I can lend you the book if you are interested in reading it. (I also recommend his blog, ‘Study Hacks’ at

  2. John Stepper

    I like it and… :-) “Useful” to whom? We can cite many examples of people being useful to their employer until they we’re deemed no longer useful.

    I like Michael’s reference to Cal Newport’s work. Here’s another resource you might like on the concept of job crafting. The researchers found people in a wide range of professions we’re evenly divided in thinking of their work as a Job, Career, or Calling. Why would that be? Wouldn’t surgeons view their work as more of a calling than nurses or short order cooks? No, it turns out, as what matters seems to be the individual’s approach to the work. ie, did they tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery, purpose, and community.

    1. Guy Lipman

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, seeing your job as a calling rather than a job makes an enormous difference, and anyone can do it. And I’m supportive of anything that helps people find the jobs they have more fulfilling. But I do believe that there are increasing numbers of people who would kill to even have work they could consider a job, and addressing the ‘usefulness’ problem will help them (without hurting those that already have found, or are on the way to finding their calling).

      As for the subjectivity of usefulness – you raise two important questions. What is useful can change over time, and part of being useful is knowing when to adapt to ride the next wave. As to who should define usefulness, I think that if someone – anyone – considers what you do useful, that’s good enough for me. (I stole this approach from David Graeber in “On the Phenomenon of Bulls**t jobs” –

  3. Pingback: Being useful – the importance of caring | Guy Lipman: Engaging Work

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