How to be useful to others

And how to cherish and use your own usefulness.

“I felt used.”

These word “use” is so often used in such a pejorative way that one forgets what a beautiful thing it is to be of use to the world.

I want to be useful. I want people to use me. I want to be of use.

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’ But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

So, how can you be useful? It’s simple. Make others stand a little taller.

You don’t need to be an expert.
You don’t need to be an inventor.
You don’t need to have a wall of diplomas.
You simply need to be human to be useful to others.

Reach out on a bad day.

Everyone has ups and downs, everyone has bad days, everyone has moments that they wish they could take back. All we need to hear on a bad day is that someone has our back, that someone cares about us. When something is not going well for someone, when their projects are not going well, when they appear anxious or worried, when their personal life is difficult, just hearing that someone else is worrying with you and about you, can ease the burden. The simple words, “How are you? Can I do something to help? Are you okay?” may make a world of difference to the person who hears them.

Image by Willgard on Pixabay.

Tell others their strengths.

We can see others’ strengths better than we can see our own. We can see others’ strengths more clearly than they can see it for themselves. Most of us go through life, often not knowing what we are really, really good at because nobody has told us. We may even think we are mediocre or bad at the thing we are great at. Telling someone what they are great at and how great they are at it, are vital. It does not matter if it’s a big thing or a little thing they are great at. Someone’s knowledge of their own greatness (through another person’s recognition of it) may make a difference in their career and their life. Be specific when you do this, though. For example, you might say, “You have a really great way with words. I would have used two sentences where you were efficient with one. I would never have thought of that.” It’s simple and to the point, but the hearer may not realize it’s something they are good at. Until you tell them.

Help others avoid mistakes.

We all appreciate it when someone tells us privately that we have spinach in our teeth, so that we can fix it before we go into a meeting. People often can’t see themselves as others see them. I know that I can’t, and that I don’t, see myself as others see me. I stumble around life, not knowing if I am doing or saying something right or wrong. I am grateful when someone gives me feedback bluntly and directly because I view it as a gesture of courage, love, and concern for me. It takes courage to tell someone they are wrong, and when someone does that for me, it means that the other person has confidence in our relationship and that they care about me enough to tell me I am wrong and that I am screwing up. Friends don’t let friends make mistakes.

Believe in others, and tell them.

The words, “I believe in you,” are the best tonic in the world. The power, commitment, and authenticity packed in those four simple words. They reinforce a personal loyalty from one person to another. The words have nothing to do with the hearer’s work, their job, their accomplishments, their possessions, or anything else. When you use these words and your actions reflect those words, you go straight to the heart of the matter. You’re stating that you believe in someone as a person. You “see” them, and you are ready to have their back. Saying these four simple words to someone can make a difference, can change their self-confidence, can change their attitude, can change the risks they take. When someone says that to me, I stand a few inches taller, I feel re-affirmed, I feel that someone has my back, and I feel that I must be doing something right.

Listen without judgment.

When we’re struggling with a problem, we often don’t want another person to give us the answers. We don’t want to be spoon-fed as it takes away from our independence and our self-reliance. We don’t want someone to tell us how they would solve something or to feed us anecdotes of how they overcame similar challenges. We intend to find our own breakthrough. We know that we can, it’s just a matter of time. All we want is someone to hear us out, to listen as we wrestle with the problem and solve it for ourselves. We want to air our thoughts to clarify our own thinking and, above all, to confirm that we are not over-reacting, over-analyzing, or over-worrying. When someone does this for me, I deeply value their quiet, non-judgmental, supportive listening as well as their occasional interjection of, “Why did you choose this option? Why did you discard that one?” to make sure that I am forced to articulate my thoughts out aloud.

Share what you figure out (the hard way).

If you’ve figured out something the hard way, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell others. It does not matter if you had to spend years figuring it out on your own, and it doesn’t matter if nobody helped you. You — now — can help others. If you know a better way, a faster way, a more efficient way, a more pleasant way to do something, tell others. Make someone else’s life a little lighter, a bit easier. We all don’t need to go through every rite of passage, nor wish that on others. I started this blog so that young professionals in academia and industry don’t have to make the mistakes that I did. I didn’t know how to do the things that I now write about, and I only figured it out after making mistakes for years, until I got it right. Well, maybe not yet. 😜

I am grateful to all those who let me use them, who asked me to use them, and who made me welcome when I used them. They made a difference in my life.

In being useful to others, we find that we are useful to ourselves, too. We gain a feeling of self-worth. We discover that our actions, our words, and our presence are capable of adding value to another human being’s life. We matter. There is a profound joy in being of use to others.

So, if you are reading this, and if I can be useful to you, let me know how.

Please use me.