On Working Successfully: Should You Be Someone Better than You?


colin-powell-center-blog-be-better-than-you I recently started reading the book How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work written by Megan Hustad. While much of the advice seems to be a sassy re-hash of conventional workplace wisdom, I would like to share with you two points that really grabbed me.

The mission of the Colin L. Powell Center is to prepare new generations of publicly engaged leaders. I work to bring students in, train them while they are here, and help them succeed once they leave – recruitment, professional development, and alumni affairs. Given this goal and my work, I read a tremendous number of professional development, advice, and etiquette articles every week. In a typical week, I come across roughly 225, and can usually only find 2-10 I think are worth sharing. Normally only a part of the piece truly stands out. I tell you this to highlight the tremendous amount of advice that is available to aspiring young professionals and how much of it is recycled nonsense, as well as the uncommon value of Ms. Hustad's two points.

(Disclaimer: I’m approximately half-way through this 200 page book – there may be stronger points waiting in the back end.)

Maybe It’s Me

In writing How to Be Useful Ms. Hustad surveyed over 100 years of career advice books, and took what she believed to be the most valuable snippets while discarding the old and tired retreads of conventional knowledge. In her first chapter, “On Being a Poseur”, Ms. Hustad summarizes Andrew Carnegie’s advice in “A Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men”, “Forget yourself, he essentially said, and maybe try being somebody else a few hours a day. Maybe be somebody better than you” (emphasis added) (Hustad 3).

Ms. Hustad correctly assaults the conventional wisdom given out by mothers, counselors, and inspirational speakers alike – just be yourself. Just being yourself is a risky and dangerous proposition. Workplace norms and culture exist for a reason; they give people a common language and set of rules by which to communicate. Ignoring these guides and abiding by the just be yourself mantra is a gamble that no one hoping to succeed in the office/factory/restaurant/theater/store should follow. By just being yourself you’re betting big that your employer can see the inherent value in your quirks and idiosyncrasies, and the truth is most people just aren’t that observant.

The other unfortunate reality is that you might not be a very nice person. You might not be a very likable person. In fact, you might be a down right crummy person. That doesn’t mean that you’re not the best person for the job. If for eight hours a day we aim to be a better person, a more conscious person, you might find that all that fortune and luck your friends seem to have is suddenly rubbing off on you.

I come from a long line of just be yourself-ers. I have always believed, quite naively, that each individual has a glorious personality inside of them and if we encourage them to be a bit more outgoing, a bit more lighthearted, and a bit more dynamic, then success is the logical result. I have found myself in a lurch on more than one occasion because of my unceasing devotion to the school of just be yourself.

There is a difference between pride and carelessness. You shouldn’t do away with your personality, but you should realize that your place of work has a personality all its own and you should first try to operate within that sphere before you start trying to expand it. After all, if everywhere you go you see yourself as other, unique and separate from the rest, constantly bemoaning the corporate drones and inflexible overlords of the workplace, it might be time to say… "maybe it’s me."

Don’t Be That Guy

Tell me if you’ve had this conversation before.

You: Blah, blah, blah remark about some movie you saw over the weekend. You loved it.

That guy: Blah, blah, blah something about the overly long run-time, and the ineffective editing.

[a little bit later that day]

You: Blah, blah, blah great but ill-formed idea to support your employer’s mission

That guy: Blah, blah, blah, machine guns your idea full of holes. Tells you why it can’t work.

I’m sure you have experienced a situation like this in your lifetime. The English language is rife with colloquialisms for such an eventuality: don’t rain on my parade, don’t be such a Debbie Downer/Negative Nancy, way to burst my bubble, etc. It seems obvious: don’t be that guy. Well I’m here to tell you that not only are you probably that guy, but you don’t even know it.

colin powell center ccny workplace tips optimism

In his 1907 book The Optimistic Life, Orison Swett Marden argues for what Ms. Hustad calls “relentless cheerfulness”. While many of Marden’s recommendations sound a bit too much like the controversial New Age self-help book The Secret for my liking, there is definitely something to this optimism thing.

It seems obvious, right? Optimistic people build up people, organizations, and themselves. Negative people tear down. Unfortunately, despite this commonly accepted understanding there seems to be too many of that guy. How did we get here? Ms. Hustad has the answer:

For one, Marden’s prescription for relentless cheerfulness sounded simply like putting blinders on. Two, this was not how we had learned to demonstrate intelligence (emphasis added). Our ability to locate wrongdoing, failure, and the loose threads in any argument – and then yank on those loose threads until the whole thing unraveled – was highly prized.

This is how we are taught to demonstrate our intelligence, especially in the soft-sciences and arts. How else might we share our brilliance? One’s ability to analyze, dissect, and evaluate are prized skills in the post-secondary world. We read great books, watch great films, and encounter challenging works; then we get together and tear them down – like a would-be mechanic taking apart an old car just to see how the pieces fit together.

Balancing Criticism and Optimism

Criticism has value; it is a necessary part of the process. We create, we criticize, we improve. The problem comes when we criticize constantly or without tact. It comes when we don’t improve. Thomas Edison is often quoted as having said “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” I promise you, he wasn’t looking for the ways that don’t work.

Rather than constantly identifying flaws, consider identifying the value of a proposition and building on that. Ms. Hustad highlights a nice strategy. When asked for your advice, try the formula: “I like _______. I would have liked it even more if she had done more of _______ toward the middle” (Hustad 34). Show off your smarts by identifying solutions, not problems. Don’t be that guy. - Colin Dixon

Colin Dixon is the program coordinator for student leadership at the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other contributing authors here.

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