Just be useful

May 8, 2016

by Ravi Raman

Being useful is a great attitude to have.

There are lots of people (and books and products) out there claiming that they can teach you how to be successful, wealthy, better-looking or intelligent. I don’t think those are the right things to pursue. They are outcomes that are very hard to control.

Instead, you will have better experiences and more joy if you approach things with a desire to be useful. Let me explain this idea in two different contexts: your fitness and career.

Useful fitness

When it comes to your health and fitness, a use-oriented mindset will seek to create a healthy body that is fit resilient to endure the rigors of life, including all the random stresses that may appear. Instead of heading to the gym to do bicep curls and bench presses, someone who is use-focused might instead do manual labor in the yard or play outside on a jungle gym.

Curls are useful for nothing except the capacity to do more curls (research shows that fitness gained doing any particular exercise is specific to that movement pattern). Mowing the lawn or playing on a jungle gym, however, have all sorts of utility that applies to the random moves we need to do on a daily basis.

This is exactly why I love long-distance hiking and running in the mountains. Dealing with the sustained low-intensity efforts punctuated by the abrupt stress of climbing steep hills is not unlike the trials of life itself. It’s the most useful and applicable physical training around as far as I’m concerned.

Next, let’s take a look at usefulness in a career context.

Useful career

Suppose you are stuck trying to decide what your major should be in school (or if you should make a career change later in life). You would be well-served not to make a choice based on your passion, but instead, ask yourself which careers are most in demand and needed by the people in your world. By “your world” I don’t mean the world overall, but in the communities in which you roam (online and offline!).

Look at problems that already exist and are in need of solutions. Look for the things that would be useful to your community first, then figure out which of those things match your capabilities and interests.

Likewise, if you are stuck buried in corporate bureaucracy and feel like the marginal utility of your output is not improving your society in a material way, start looking for ways you can be even more useful. This might require changing teams or roles at your company to apply your skills more efficiently, or perhaps jumping ship and doing your own thing.

Perhaps like me, you may realize that your skills would be more useful to the world doing something entirely different!

In a business sense, when you do things that are helpful and useful, you never need to look for customers as there is a built-in market for you (as long as you do it well and continually improve!). When you can serve a critical mass customers by providing something useful, you will inevitably get feedback. This feedback will serve two purposes. Firstly, it will stoke your internal motivation. Second, it will provide you opportunities to learn and hone your craft.

When you are learning and motivated, you will inevitably generate this mysterious thing people call “passion.”

Therefore, if you are at all feeling stuck in deciding what to do, be it with your exercise routine or your career path, think about what is going to be the most useful thing. Chances are it will lead you down the right track.

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