Megan Hustad's Tips for Being Useful

Megan Hustad has a thing for career advice books. She's so fond of the genre that she's spent copious amounts of time reading advice books that span well over a hundred years.

In How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, she strings together tips from sage authors including Emily Post, Conrad Hilton, and Helen Gurley Brown. Hustad has created a practical book filled with career advice, some of it common sense (ask questions if you need clarification), some of it surprising (don't always "be yourself").

CP: How did you come up with the idea to distill career advice from sources as old as 200 years?

MH: Basically, I like going to library and checking out books that no one has looked out since 1973, and taking notes. That, for me, is a good time and writing a book was a way to get paid doing that. Also, I was a history major, and I wanted to see know what ideas had withstood the test of time; if there was any continuity, not just from year to year, but generation to generation, and economic cycle to economic cycle.

CP: How does career advice from the 1800s hold up today? Has the workplace really changed so little?

MH: What I like about the early stuff, especially advice from the late 1800s, is that it was so blunt about what you could expect to encounter in an office. At the time, the idea of the office and the businessman was a new concept. I think nowadays we do young people a disservice when we tell them they can have any job they want if they apply themselves; to just "be yourself." Being yourself isn’t always the answer though. Your boss might not give a shit about what you read last weekend, about your sky trip, or your photography habits. When working in an office people need to understand that it’s hierarchical, and people need to be trained to do it properly.

CP: Any timeless advice in the books you read that you saw again and again?

MH: I came across "Be quiet" quite consistently, which was surprising. We have this concept of the American go-getter as a chatterbox who will talk your ear off. But many books will tell you, "Don't talk so much. Watch. Think before you speak, or don't speak at all."

CP: Can you explain why there's a stigma attached to self-help books?

MH: I think it has to do with how they’re marketed, or what they imply: If you’re the type of person who reads literature, you don’t need self-help. If you’re far less creative or resourceful, then you’ll read John Grisham and self-improvement books. It’s assumed that for the lit types that it’s common sense, that most of these books aren’t well written, or to read one implies the worst about you. I think we over-identify with the things we buy. We don’t like to think we’re materialistic, but we are. We think that what we’re reading is sending a message about who we are. So if you’re reading a business book, you must be some sort of wannabe middle management.

CP: You talk about how little things like errand running or making copies can really help people stand out. Why are so many young people reluctant to do grunt work?

MH: I do see that reluctance as a trend. I spoke to a woman that had worked in publishing, and she mentioned that her interns didn't want to do the things that interns are normally expected to do; they thought they were above it. Why? Well, there are a number of factors: Teenage labor is way down, some people blame indulgent parenting practices, and not too many twentysomethings have been around adults for whom their personal development is not a top priority. When you're low on the totem poll and no one's interested in your ideas, that can be a shock.

CP: Often in movies and storybooks for children, the lesson learned is to "be yourself." You state that in the professional world, this is actually the worst thing to do. Why? Are we teaching bad lessons to our kids?

MH: I think when you’re in your early 20s, it’s too soon to be asked to "be yourself." I didn’t have a clue who I was and who I wanted to be at that age. Unless you have financial backing, you can’t really be cavalier about things, you really just have to buckle down and wait it out until you are in a position of power where you can take more risks.

CP: So there’s some truth to the old saying that mundane tasks "build character?"

MH: I’ve photocopied entire books, page by page! It does give you time to reflect and work through issues. In an office you have to deal with people and sit at your desk all day.

CP: Anything that at first seemed counterintuitive, but after some thought made sense?

MH: Helen Gurley Brown’s (Sex and the Single Girl) advice really surprised me. She had good advice on how to "sneak up" on powerful people. She understood how to get power using the back door, and how to obtain power without looking like you are angling for it. Things like, volunteer for jobs at work, while scheming quietly.

CP: Of all the advice you give, or found others giving, which do you think is the hardest to learn or take?

MH: I think the counterintuitive thing to me that makes sense now that I would have bristled at being younger is that you need to submerge your own goals to someone else’s before you can make it; to help others to reach their own goals. People might say that you’re just being a passive team player. But no, it’s really about being expedient. Help someone, and they will pull you up with them. To be able to get where you’re going on sheer wit, that’s not likely to happen.

CP: You state in early chapters that we are living in a period of "ironic detachment": a sarcastic, negative cycle. Is this a detrimental outlook to have in an office environment?

MH: Well, it definitely needs to be contained. It can take on a life of its own, and it doesn't help you. In my 20s I was a sardonic person, all my friends were. It doesn't work. We weren't going to advance with that attitude, and it doesn't make you any happier. You start to dwell on people's shortcomings. I think the economic conditions will change attitudes. Things are going to get tough. Ironic detachment is a carefree—or seemingly carefree—posture that only works in boom times.

Megan Hustad discusses tricks and tips for career advancement 7 p.m. Thursday night at Barnes & Noble (2080 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul; 651.690.9443).

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