Careers: How Not to Hate Your Job

Just in time for college graduation comes a career guide for the smart liberal-arts grad who believes such guides are nothing more than a pile of self-help mush: "How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work," by Megan Hustad, 33, a history major at the University of Minnesota, and former book editor at Random House and Basic Books.

"How to Be Useful" draws on a century's worth of career advice--from Andrew Carnegie and Dale Carnegie (not related) to Helen Gurley Brown and Stephen Covey. But Hustad's book is more than an I-read-this-so-you-won't-have-to exercise. She believes there is plenty of career gold in these mines, and she intersperses her readings with anecdotes from the contemporary workplace. Hustad spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross about the clichés of the career canon, what it takes to get ahead in the "creative industries" and the delicate art of managing your first boss. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So, who is the target audience?
Megan Hustad: Recent grads, twentysomething or older, who would normally never pick up a book of good advice. I wanted to stop these lessons from being lost to a whole subset of pretentious liberal-arts grads like I once was.

Why aren't they picking up career-advice books?
All this stuff is seen as tacky or intellectually suspect. There's this idea that if you're really clever you can take something artsy, like a 19th-century novel, or a short-story collection in translation, and if you're smart enough, you can find wisdom there and apply it to any situation. Also, people tend to overidentify with products they buy. There's a sense that a certain type of person reads a certain type of book. And lots of creative types think that these books aren't just for me.

You offer career advice for people seeking careers in industries like fashion, publishing, politics and technology. But aren't career paths in these industries chaotic and unpredictable, and hence difficult to plan. How does that work?
This book was inspired by my experiences in the creative industries. There's no benchmark in publishing, for example, that says if you hit certain targets by a certain date you'll get rewarded, like becoming managing director on Wall Street, or getting tenure as an academic. Instead, it's a total free for all. Which means that a lot of your success comes down to relationships and office politics and your personal skills. It's not how clever or how good you are, or how sparkling your prose is. Rather, if you're not someone who has ultimately presented himself as someone who higher-ups want to see succeed, you're not going to.

The book is structured as an intellectual history of career advice. Why did you take that approach?
I'm a history major, by biography and inclination. So that was fascinating to me. And I was curious to see which lessons held up over time, and how do different generations take the same core methods and apply them to their circumstances.

And whose advice holds up best over time?
Dale Carnegie, the author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People," is one. I found all these old New Yorker magazines, and they mentioned Dale Carnegie four or five times in Talk of the Town pieces. They looked at him with mild bemusement, but could never bring themselves to dismiss him and his projects entirely. He was seen even by total snobs as doing some good. You don't see that deference today from highbrow publications.

Let's get to some of the nitty-gritty advice. You say that using wit and showing verbal agility, which are crucial to success in creative industries, can be a double-edged sword. How so?
The people who are most keen to make you understand just how smart they are and how devastating their wit is are the ones whose careers take the longest to take root. They're hoping that the world is going to bow down before their smarts, and if they just make it clear how smart and deserving they are, it's only a matter of time. And they don't realize that they're just making people feel uncomfortable. When I told people about the book, they didn't have enough control over their facial muscles to make it clear that they didn't like the topic. Or they'd come back with a clever put down of success literature. I don't think they realize they're being that obnoxious. It's a lack of socialization.

People entering the workforce today have been socialized in an era in which self-expression, airing the details of your life on the Internet, seems to be a core part of their identity. Should they try to tamp down that impulse as they enter the workforce?
We're in a culture where everyone is encouraged to have a comment on everything. It's really too easy. It used to be that if you have something that you felt needed to be aired, whether it's your artwork or something about your personal life, it took a lot of work. And you really had to apply yourself to get to the point where you could broadcast it. Now you don't have to feel very strongly, so the immediacy is part of the problem. The discouragements that come along from having to apply yourself, taking time to reconsider and take stock of yourself and the consequences of what you're doing--all that is valuable. I'm 33 next week, and I find this desire to air personal dirty laundry surprising and dismaying.

You find some value in etiquette expert Emily Post's advice that people should essentially censor themselves in public situations?
The whole point of being guarded and a little reserved is not necessarily to avoid offending someone's delicate sensibilities. The point is that whatever info you put out there about yourself, once it's out there, you have no control over how it will be used. And how it will be used will not necessarily be to your benefit.

Speaking of Emily Post, it seems like you have something nice to say about everybody and every text you came across. Even Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." What did you find useful there?
Something that's very minor. He essentially says we're too quick to over identify with both our successes and our mistakes, and that your success is going to rest as much on how you handle your screw-ups as much as how you handle the gold stars. I used him for the chapter on how not to defend yourself. Everybody's impulse now, especially if they've been a straight-A student, is to make sure you're always above reproach. But in the office, the impulse to make sure you don't get blamed for what goes wrong is not going to work. You sometimes wind up looking better for absorbing some of the blame.

One of the lessons I took from the book is that, even as an entry-level employee, you have to manage those who manage you. Why is that?
Don't underestimate how susceptible higher-ups are to kindness. I don't think you realize it when you're in a subordinate position, but your boss wants to be liked by you. They won't tell you that, but if you're pleasant and gracious and kind to them, and even if you have to force it some times, it will work to your benefit some times. A lot of people want to wind up working for themselves. I did. But the way to get there is not to start asserting your desire for independence right away. You have to paradoxically overextend yourself to other people, and help them realize their goals. That's the fastest route to a self-directed career.