On Being Useful

I wrote this piece after an early-career friend of mine asked some very good questions on how to be useful. Since this is a thing I struggle a bit with myself, I thought it worthwhile to write up my thoughts. Note that I fully understand that not everyone has the luxury to think about their career like this – you first have to take care of yourself and family before you can start fretting about if your working life is saving the world!

I and many of my friends are struggling to be, or at least feel, useful. Most of our professional opportunities are not particularly useful. If you are a ‘project lifecycle manager’ at a bland corporation, it can be hard to convince yourself you are achieving anything good for the world.

It almost appears that corporations are structured so that it is impossible to have any kind of real impact. There has been justified criticism of the famous Bullshit Jobs essay, but if you reread it today, you can’t help but think there is quite some truth in the thesis that a lot of work is actually make-work, where we keep each other busy by filing and reading reports, but not actually achieving that much.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Although there are many corporate jobs furthering inclusivity, sustainability and other worthy things, the work there largely consists of getting certifications or having people do the right kind of training. Often very little actual sustainability or inclusion is going on, and even if there is, your role in such a department is pretty far away from the action. But, unlike the project lifecycle manager, you can at least tell yourself your efforts are intended towards creating a better world.

But, back to our challenge: how can we be useful, how can we try to contribute to at least trying to make things better? Because things aren’t looking that great for climate, societies, peace and democracies worldwide.

This is not some kind of LinkedIn life-advice post. I can’t give you any surefire tips, and I don’t think anyone can. Also, I’m not perfect either (as you’ll read below). But it may be that my meandering thoughts might provide some inspiration on what (not) to do. Do let me know on bert@hubertnet.nl if you have thoughts, observations or suggestions!

Some honesty

At this point, we have to be rather honest to ourselves. I and many of my friends do want to help, but we want to do so in a specific impactful way that fits our lifestyle.

Much respect for people that have far more guts than I do!

Because if you truly wanted to contribute, you could retrain as a teacher or a nurse or a social worker and start being practically useful in pretty short order (although even in these fields, good efforts are often hindered by imposing onerous training requirements). A remarkable number (5 at least) of my friends have moved from careers in consulting, biotechnology, publishing, government work to becoming actual teachers, and I think this is awesome.

It is important to be clear about exactly what our ambition is. It helps if we admit that we want to have a positive impact, but actually want to do so while (pick a few):

  • Making enough money to sustain our lifestyle
  • Not having to relocate
  • Doing work that sounds good to our social circle
  • Potentially be a big hero and disrupt things for the better
  • Having a rapid impact

Often when you want too many things at the same time, nothing happens. Whereas if you ration yourself to slightly more achievable aims, you might actually accomplish a lot more.

You might also come to the conclusion that you want to change the world from exactly the kind of working environment you are used to. If this is the case, have a hard think, because it is extremely unlikely you can change a company from the inside, unless you are really at the top. And if you are, there is your answer: move your whole organization in a useful direction. But don’t expect to change the world from a mid-company position (except in a very small way).

Big change? Little change?

One concrete thing to ponder is if you need to personally change the world in a big way. If you change careers to an organization that does generally useful work, and through your efforts that place works better and achieves more of its goals, you are truly being very useful. Although no one might know that your efforts to make HR work really well eventually helped make a meaningful change to the world, everyone should feel perfectly fine about this kind of work. Well done.

It may however be that you can’t convince your brain that this is enough, and that you want to be closer to the action and have a more personal hand in things. But do ponder if your direct personal skills at changing the world are actually any better than your current skills that could make other people’s hands-on efforts work a lot better!

One other thing to ponder is how much you could improve an organization if you manage to bring knowledge from your field to theirs. For example, if you are really good at actually doing hands on marketing, you might be able to turbocharge a charity if you manage to teach them what you know.

There is so much that needs work!!

Currently, there is so much wrong in the world that it may be hard to commit to one specific thing. I feel this problem very strongly myself. The climate is terrible, democracies are backsliding, societies are polarizing, AI might disrupt our economies entirely, wars are going on, our (Europe’s) defenses are degraded, health(care) is facing many challenges, inequality is becoming ridiculous, and I could go on.

You might get paralyzed thinking about all these problems at the same time, and end up picking none of them and achieve nothing. You might also get somewhat messed up if you try take all the world’s problems on your shoulders. Ask me how I know.

There are however some ways in which you could be useful for all these problems at the same time, for example by becoming an (investigative) journalist. This in theory would allow you to educate people and expose problems in many fields, without (really) having to commit to anything specific. But do know that even some of the very successful journalists I know wonder if their work has any impact at all.

Writing about what governments or organizations are doing really does make a difference. My blog posts on the EU Galileo satellite project for example have had a (modest) effect on Galileo operations - “we know someone is watching”. Conversely, for my work for the Dutch electoral council, I’ve been impressed by the efforts of the Open State Foundation who keep a close eye on Dutch elections. I know that if I mess up, they will notice.

You could also go work with/for a political party of your liking (good luck finding one) and getting them to focus on specific topics you want to further, which could be different ones over time. But, as with journalists, know that even many senior politicians struggle to truly move the needle. If it were easy, we would not be in this situation. Also, politics is a meat grinder in many places right now (more about this later).

Do know however that “trying to push everything a little bit in the right direction” (as a journalist, publicist or politician) means you will only rarely achieve anything very concrete. You’ll have to get your satisfaction from knowing many people read your paper/article, or that you managed to delay something bad or conversely sped up something good somewhat. This goes back to the ‘convincing your brain’ part above. It will not work for everyone.

So, if you focus on many things at the same time, be sure you can live without the emotional reward of sometimes achieving a breakthrough of something that is a step change.

In my personal experience trying to improve the world by writing and talking, I know I’ve made one or two EU acts a bit better. I’ve helped delay what I think is a bad law in The Netherlands. I know my writing on outsourcing & European autonomy changed a few moderately important decisions here and there. I suspect my talks at various Dutch government departments (backed up by my writings) probably made some decisions there a bit more factually inspired. Somewhat further back in time, I probably helped prevent some further centralization of the internet to Google (at least for now).

Summed up like this, it does look like this was all quite useful. But realize that this represents the better part of a decade of writing. Along the way, it mostly feels like it doesn’t really matter what you are doing.

“You also have to actually do it”

You can find an area where you have expertise, and where important work needs to be done. In theory this means you are all set, but you might still find you hate the actual work. I can best explain this with a personal example from 2013 or so. Science is currently held back tremendously by piss poor software. This is because we often expect (say) biologists to write computer programs, and we don’t provide them with any training to do so. We also do not provide programmers.

Almost anything you could do in this area will improve things massively. And in the end a lot of progress comes from science, so we’d all be better off it the software were better.

Since I’m good with biology, teaching and computers, it seemed like I should be pursuing this. I organized some very small trial courses at TU Delft and results were pretty electrical. Introducing even simple unit tests and continuous integration are huge game changers.

To scale this up, I figured out a pretty neat structure where a trifecta of (PhD) students, industry and academic funders would cooperate to organize courses, which would lead to the generation of more scientific programmers who could eventually have a great path to industry if academia was not to their liking. It really looked tremendously good on paper, a real win-win-win.

Except that I found that although I was super enthusiastic about the aims and also the plan, my own role in all of this would suck for me. I’d spend all my time for a few years getting agreements into place, getting universities to work with the scheme, to fight off institutional inertia etc. In other words, I loved the idea, but the actual work was just too depressing to ponder.

It took me months to discover that it is not enough to find something important and for which you have applicable skills. You also need to be sure that what you are going to really do is something you’d enjoy and can keep up. Otherwise you end up being depressed and also not helping. “Does this get me out of bed on Monday” is the question to ask.

Impact, politics, government work

If you turn yourself into a teacher, you can be sure you have a useful impact on dozens of students per year. And that’s nothing to sniff at. But many of us would love to be a bigger hero in our own story. If you manage to change educational policy so better teachers can be recruited or retained, you might improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of students.

The big levers to pull are obviously within governments and political parties. Many of us ponder what we could achieve from within, but this is a complex question. We have today’s problems because politics and governments are not responding well to the many problems we have. In many countries, politics truly is a meat grinder where almost nothing can be achieved, except at great personal cost.

If you go work in that scene, you can still contribute “on average”, as outlined above. If you manage to make some things work better, or get some decision making to be more factual, that is a win. But a reasonable expectation is that you’ll almost never make a big change or achieve something really tangible. You’ll have to take it as a win that you made some things better, in some cases.

It may however be possible to achieve grander things in fields that do not get that much attention. A political party might simply not have a strong position on a subject, and you could then easily move into that void and change things.

There are rare cases where you could get a special assignment within a government for something you are really good at. These opportunities are rare, but if there is some kind of crisis and a government is in the mood for something new, you could end up making a difference. In The Netherlands this happened in the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic, where a very special team of people ended up creating some pretty outstanding software and procedures, in completely new ways (or at least, new for governments).

Chances like these however do not come around all too often.

Meanwhile, political parties are a kind of casino. You could hit it off and become important, and it could even be that your chosen political party is successful. Or you could end up being an ignored part of a political party in opposition. Or the party might turn out to be awful, and that could stick to you and harm your future prospects.

If you are earlier in your career, a few years of government (not political) work are actually pretty good. You’ll learn a lot, and it is not such a huge step from school to government. If you’ve spent a decade in industry, government (policy) work might start to look very unattractive. As a junior person within government meanwhile, you are actually rather near the wheels of power, and who knows, your work might actually suddenly become policy. This happens.

Government also offers near endless opportunities for work that is important, if perhaps not too flashy. If you haven’t worked in (local) government, nor know anyone there, you may have a somewhat caricature-like picture of what it is like to work in the public sector. Do take a good look, it might work for you, and as of 2023 there are always a ton of jobs there.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities, mission oriented research

This is somewhat disappointing - for any worthy goal you have in mind, there are already NGOs, charities, think tanks and research institutes active. You might ponder joining one of those, but look real carefully at what you are joining. Many of the largest charities are actually more like financial institutions that dole out funding, often very inefficiently. If you join that kind of office, you’ll end up being super frustrated as you discover over time that you are working at a place where everything revolves around money, and not say, health.

Do ask if the organization has both executive and lobbying/policy components.

At other places, you might discover that your favorite charity or research agency is in fact “just a place where people work” without too much passion. You need to be really sure that an organization with goals that you agree with is actually looking for someone like you who wants to have a tangible impact. The people delivering the goals of the organization may be working in lots of other places, and you might have better luck working with them.

Also, some think tanks are more like lobbying shops, but it might take you a while to find that out. Check carefully!

Being a figurehead of something

At some point in your life, your value may shift from personally doing things to being an example or providing “leadership”. If you’ve been a journalist writing wise words on a certain topic for decades, you might find yourself being asked if you want to be the head of a journalistic institute, or an institute that does the things you’ve been writing about.

In such a role, you turn into a living reminder of certain values. You can provide important leadership. You get to hand out rewards perhaps, or you might even get them.

This can all be very good depending on your age and stage of career (usually quite late). But do realize your role will from that point on be quite ceremonial - you get to opine on things, say wise stuff during interviews, pontificate on TV etc. But you’ll mostly not be allowed to actually do things.

This may be what you are looking for, and it could still be very worthwhile - your wisdom might make lots of people do more of the right thing.

Fooling yourself

As noted, many of us really want to be useful, but (like me) might not be willing to make great sacrifices. There are ways in which you might think you’ve squared the circle, some useful sounding job, decent pay, socially attractive employer etc. But you might actually be joining a corporate responsibility circus. Many people have joined big corporations and then taken a few years to figure out that the whole ‘carbon zero program’ is a fake paper exercise which, while fully certified, does nothing.

Similarly, there are many consultancy companies around that talk a lot about their environmental and societal values. But make no mistake, expensive consultancies are not charities, and they tend to produce outcomes that their customers like. You won’t create a just world through McKinsey. Sorry.

If you think you’ve found the perfect place to be useful without appreciable sacrifice, do ask yourself if this might all be too good to be true.

The slog: not that bad

We’d all like to slot in somewhere and achieve things from day one. Oddly enough, this turns out not to be that hard of a requirement as you might think. If there is an opportunity for something that could end up being useful down the road, at least I find myself having an easy time feeling useful already while building the thing.

While working on a project with a worthy goal, even internal deadlines or milestones can feel like worthy achievements. And maybe it doesn’t pan out, but your time was probably not wasted - the knowledge gained does not disappear.

If you open your eyes for projects which right now do not have any impact yet, but might later, you’ll find that there are a lot more opportunities that could work for you.

This could be a startup, but perhaps also a fresh (government) initiative, for example.

Do note that you have to be careful you aren’t fooling yourself - startups are allowed quite some magical thinking otherwise no one would ever start one. But do make sure that the eventual goal is at least theoretically possible!

Entrepreneurship, startups

Added on July 1st 2023.

Several readers noted that I did not talk that much about entrepreneurship or starting your own company. So yes, this is something you could do, and I did it twice even. It worked for me. But I see this more as a mode for being useful than being useful per se.

You might find that having your own company is a good/only vehicle to achieve your goals. But do realise that it is only a mode - but perhaps one which gives you more freedom. Please be aware that running a company itself is a lot of work, and that this is not directly useful for the rest of the world. In other words, it comes with considerable overhead.

Simultaneously, big companies are also typically a huge drag on your productivity. So do give this a good think, but don’t see it as a goal itself.

What can you achieve from within

I wrote above that you can’t reasonably expect to create a revolution within your own employer, unless you really are a big shot. In which case I’d say, go for it.

It is entirely possible however to move your place of work in the right direction for some things. Also, you can easily create friction for bad ideas, for example. Even if you don’t manage to stop something bad, even delaying it might already be useful. If you reduce the number of bad decisions per year by 20%, that might be meaningful.

Conversely, you might be able to help good initiatives along in many ways. Even in places with top-down decision making, you can have an impact if a good idea is received enthusiastically for example. Or, if you spot people with good ideas, you can mentor them to make sure their idea gets a decent chance.

Again, you might not always (or even often) be successful with that, but if your place of work is big enough, even an occasional effect could have a huge impact.

Academia, research

What can I say. I love science, I love research, I love teaching. But if you follow academics on Twitter or elsewhere, it is currently not a happy place. Even successful scientists spend an inordinate amount of time getting grants, pleasing committees, reformatting papers to ever changing standards and doing free labor for extortionate publishers.

I spent 18 months doing research at a university and it was grand. But that was mostly because I was sufficiently outside of the system that I could do actual scientific work (do read my article in Nature Scientific Data).

I presented my work at a scientific conference where people nearly fainted when they heard I could do actual work without having to beg for funding all day long.

Nevertheless, you could find a corner of academia that works for you. Personally, I’d love to do more teaching there. I could do a lovely job educating computer science people about biology, but because I never graduated, I’m not allowed to do that, even though I’m a published & cited scientist.

Volunteering, external projects, donating money

It is not a given that your day job needs to be the only place where you can achieve things. At one point, I pondered seeing my day job as the thing that provided money and that I’d try to do more useful things elsewhere. Eventually this did not work for me since office work is so draining for me that I don’t have a lot of energy left to do anything else.

But if you are yearning for meaningful work, it might be that employment might not provide that for you. Perhaps work is where you make money (and perhaps have fun coworkers), and you could find purpose in volunteering for more useful things. It doesn’t all have to come from work, and perhaps that is even a naive expectation.

Also, do consider how much value you add to the world by being there for any children you might have or other people around you. Doing work for your neighborhood/town can be very rewarding too.

Alternatively, if your employment situation allows it, ponder sending money to charities or people doing good work. Your skill of making money from your current industry may be the best thing you have to offer your favorite goals!

Note, some readers thought I was advocating for the “effective altruism movement” here, but I’m very much not doing that.

New opportunities

Before you can do anything new you have to know about it. There are remarkable amounts of meetups and public events where you can just show up, or where you only have to register. And by all means do that. When I get wanderlust I try to increase my chances of running into something new by attending more presentations, conferences or accepting coffee invitations I’d normally decline. In this way you can increase your exposure to potential new stuff very easily.

Sufficient of this stuff happens outside of working hours so you can do this next to your current thing.

So what is it going to be?

Can you be happy making small changes that collectively are very useful? Or (like me) do you crave making big changes that could work, or achieve nothing at all?

Do you want to contribute from within your current place/field of work? It is very hard to change your employer significantly, but again, pushing worthwhile things might still make a difference (or providing friction for bad things).

Or do you want to make the jump to government, charity, NGO, think tank or academia? Know that the grass may appear greener on the other side, but that things could be very different in reality.

On the other hand, also be very wary of corporates flaunting their green/societal/diversity credentials, it is likely mostly a paper exercise, but you might only find out after ten years of effort. Specifically consultancies are not in it to change the world (for the better in any case).

You could join an existing club, or launch your own company/organization. If you do the latter, carefully weigh how much time think you’ll have to spend on running/building your new thing. But also realise how much work it is to get anything done in a larger organization!

Just do it

If you feel you need change, go actually do it. Over time it gets ever harder to change jobs, careers or fields. The “right moment” will likely never arrive. One day you’ll find yourself being stuck in a career rut you can’t easily/credibly escape.

It does however pay to really think it through and figure out if your potential new role actually gets you out of bed in the morning, and if what you could achieve there is what you think it is.

Good luck!