Making Oneself Useful

Earlier this week, I spoke to a class of undergraduates on how to build and leverage social networks. As I thought about what to say, one big (new) question came up for me: Leverage means “use to maximum advantage” and in the context of social media, leverage usually  indicates “to influence.”  So is having influence the assumed purpose of using social media?  I hope not.  Instead, I wonder if leveraging social media is really about having access – access to ideas, knowledge, information, and discussion, for the purpose of learning, understanding, and making oneself useful.

There was a particularly bright student sitting in the front row. At the end of my talk, she asked something like this: “What is the role of humility in making oneself useful? Who am I to do these things?”

As a woman speaking to a younger woman, I immediately placed her question in the context of imposter syndrome and the habitual qualifying of responses (“My thinking isn’t really that good but…”) that some people, particularly women, tend to do.  I told her that it was important to listen, to ask for help, to be honest, receptive, and flexible, and to understand that she and the situation were constantly evolving.  However, at the end of the day, she should enter usefulness with a certain confidence: If she wasn’t going to do the work, then who was? And the work must be done.

Not a horrible answer, but one day later, I read the inaugural post of the new scholar-in-residence for the VCU Division of Learning Innovation and Student Success, Brian Palmer, and he does a better job.  According to Brian, the passage to usefulness involves a combination of humility, courage, and sense of wonder.  He provides a great discussion of humility and more.  To me, it seems he is talking about usefulness in the context of care.

Care can be manifested in a million practices, but all of them seem to require a special balance of active and passive behaviors (If you are having problems understanding, consider seeing the movie “Inside Out,” or at least watching this clip).  You must listen. You must ask questions. You must act. You must NOT act. You must be quiet. You must adjust your perspective.  You must act again.  You must take calculated risks. You must try. You must be wrong sometimes and try again. You must have faith.

You must have faith, and by faith I do not necessarily mean religion.  I read Frances Bell’s post on the importance of listening.  But I think what she is talking about is more than the act of listening, rather I think she is approaching the act of caring. In the story she references, the physicians neither listened nor acted. They were not providing care. Rather than having faith, they fell back on dogma and policy. They were not being useful.

Hospitals are, as Kate Bowles says, all the weirdness, but they were my home when I was a surgeon.  After all, young physicians are called “residents” for a reason. The flows, intimacies, and suspended time of the hospital still make more sense to me than this outside world of ours in which people don’t talk about their bodies or feelings, or even seem to notice or understand them at all, really. All that being said, the pathway to being useful in a hospital can be deceptively difficult.  You would think that it’s about making people healthy again, but “healthy” means something different to every patient, and of course there are some patients would rather die and perhaps we should be making ourselves useful by helping them do that with dignity, grace, and comfort.

Regardless, healthcare providers have the privilege of making themselves useful in very powerful, very intimate, very beautiful ways. If something stands out from the last two weeks, it’s that I don’t have access to that special privilege, those situations anymore, or that sort of usefulness anymore. I miss it.

It’s been four years since I stopped being a doctor.  Since then, I’ve found other ways to be useful, I think, although they don’t feel nearly as powerful, fulfilling…powerful (influential? Is this really all about influence? Has this post gone full circle?).

I need to practice to get better at them, of course (always). And I need to learn to value them as highly as I do the usefulness of being a doctor. But one step at a time, right?

Humility, courage, and sense of wonder. It’s a good list.


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