During the publicity jag for the How to Be Useful hardcover, an interviewer, reaching into her mail bag, proposed that usefulness wasn’t something serious people aspired to. “What if I don’t want to be useful?” she asked. It was an excellent question, and deserved a more thoughtful answer than the one I gave. (A terse “Better hope you have a trust fund.”)
At its most basic level, wanting to be useful involves changing one’s orientation so that one’s primary question in any endeavor is, simply, how can I help? The few people I’ve spoken to who curl up their lips at the idea see how can I be useful here? as a denial of self. But other people with a more evolved understanding of usefulness, just know that more interesting things happen to them when they try to be useful.
PopTech, where I had the privilege of spending this weekend, was liberally studded with these kinds of people. They had looked around, observed what needs doing, and are attempting to find meaningful solutions. I rather like that some of them have commercial reasons as well for aspiring to usefulness — that being of service, or fulfilling a social need, can translate to piles of money is a theme woven into self-help books and American literature ever since Benjamin Franklin. The moral as discussed in business books tend to boil down to this: If you’re not useful, you won’t make money. If you’d like to make more money, be more useful.
That’s not as crass as it sounds. “Merit makes its way in the world by renting itself out in some marketplace or other, by being of use,” the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in 1956′s The Power Elite, before going on to make the point I tried to get at with my trust fund quip: Only the exceedingly wealthy can spurn being useful. The rest of us can’t afford to; we need to get paid.
Now it’s abundantly clear, with plastics finding their way into the stomachs of baby albatrosses and a whole host of worrying developments, that we, collectively, privileged or not, can’t afford to spurn being useful. Complacency is expensive. The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent in September. I really hope these people succeed. I hope they get the chance to employ scads of people. And soon.