Being useful – the importance of caring

I wrote a post about a month ago, arguing that we should strive to be useful in our lives and work.

Since writing that post, I’ve continued to think about the importance of usefulness in a changing world.  I’ve read two books on the topic: So Good They Can’t Ignore You (thanks for the tip, Michael) and Second Machine Age, and I’ve recently started Every Good Endeavor.  They all have things to say on the topic, but I know I’ve got lots more thinking and reading to do.

Some of my thinking has been fairly philosophical, and you might be glad to hear that I’ll leave those thoughts for another post.

But I’ve also been thinking more concretely about how to be more useful.  I’ve had a few ideas, each of which I’d like to put into a post, but as always, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts and ideas.

My top suggestion for how to be useful is to genuinely care about other people (those you’re working for, and those you’d like to work for)

This is an odd suggestion, and I’m sure it isn’t one that most people would come up with.  But, when you think about it, caring about others makes you more useful in a number of ways:

  • it motivates you to do a better job of helping them, which improves the quality of your work
  • when you’re motivated by caring for them, you’ll think more widely about how best to help them, increasing possibilities
  • you’re less likely to take shortcuts or cheat if you genuinely care about the person you’re working for
  • for these reasons, and more generally, people are more inclined to trust someone who they sense genuinely cares and has their best interests at heart (and trust is invaluable for being useful)
  • what people say they want done, and what they ultimately want done, are often very different:  if you care about them, you’re more likely to end up doing what they ultimately want done.

You may find this an unsatisfactory suggestion: caring for other people seems like something you can’t consciously choose to do or not.  In some rare cases, that might be true: sociopaths that can’t feel empathy, or those that couldn’t not care.  But, I see many many people whose level of caring is a lot more variable – influenced by the company, their boss, or the nature of the work.  For this majority of people, there’s a lot we can do to work on genuinely caring, and reducing the influence of factors that might otherwise cause us to care less.  And I know that in my work, there are things I can do to help me care about colleagues, and I know how much it improves the value of my work.

I’m not saying you have to genuinely care about everyone – just as there’s a lot of work out there that doesn’t have to be yours to do.  I’m just suggesting that if you’re looking to be useful, a sensible starting point is to find a group of people that you can care about, and then let your care motivate your actions

One word of warning – caring for other people can go to unhelpful lengths – you can burn yourself out in the process, or end up hurting yourself or the other person in the process.  But, if you genuinely care about others, you should be motivated to take steps to address those risks.  Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, which I’ve blogged about before, gives excellent advice on avoiding the potential pitfalls of caring and giving.

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