How to be incredibly useful

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Some interesting stuff that’s been making me think:

Darshak Sanghavi, a columnist for Slate, writes:

Researchers in Scotland reported a 31-percent reduction in the risk of heart attacks among men taking the statin pravastatin, sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb…[the drug] now grosses more than $2 billion in sales per year.

A 31 percent reduction in heart attacks, after all, seems impressive…[But] what, after all, does a 31 percent relative reduction in heart attacks mean? In the case of the 1995 study, it meant that taking Pravachol every day for five years reduced the incidence of heart attacks from 7.5 percent to 5.3 percent…it also means that the “absolute risk” of a heart attack for any given person dropped by only 2.2 percentage points* (from 7.5 percent to 5.3 percent). The benefit of Pravachol can be summarized as a 31 percent relative reduction in heart attacks—or a 2.2 percent absolute reduction.

Think about how this affects your personal finances. Did your fund send you its summary saying it increased profits 40%? Really? How much did that turn out to be? Be suspicious of the numbers.

* * *

Robert Davis describes the difficulty of parking in Palo Alto while visiting IDEO, the famed design firm—and what they did to make it better:

An aside about Palo Alto: if you want to park for thirty minutes or less, it’s your kind of town. Two hours or less, they’ve got something for you, too. All day? Out of luck.

And then I met the IDEO account representative, and he made my problem go away.

He didn’t tell me about a lot I could drive to, or offer me an IDEO parking space. He didn’t give me advice or information to help me mitigate the issue myself.

He asked for my car keys.

He attached a small tag to my key ring with a map on one side and a blank grid on the other, to note where the car was parked and when. A small team of IDEO employees then monitors how long each car has been in its current space, then goes out and moves them to other legal spots as needed. They then note the location on the card and return it to the front desk. All day long.

And if you do get a ticket, by some strange chance, you mail it in to them and they pay it.

The most successful people I’ve met started off removing barriers for themselves–and then for people they wanted to impress. In other words, to become useful, think of how you can be useful to someone else. Some things I’ve learned:

When you go into a meeting, have duplicate copies in case your coworker forgets his.

Spend 5 minutes organizing your papers and to-dos before you go to sleep, so when you wake up, you’re ready to go.

If you don’t get a response to an email, don’t write another email saying, “Did you get my email?” Instead, write this: “I’m not sure if you got a chance to look at this. What do you think? I’ve pasted it below to make it easier for you.”

When you email someone to schedule a meeting, use their time zone, not yours. (Thanks to Ian for this one).

Carry a pen.

Also when scheduling meetings, include your phone number on the last correspondence in case they get lost.

Anticipate what people will need and make it happen before they ask. If you run a web site or web app, figure out what your users are going to complain about and address it before they do—or even just acknowledge it. They’ll love you for it. If you go out to a business dinner, have the check taken care of in advance. And if your roommate is going to run out of milk, pick up another carton before he does.

I’ll write more about this in an upcoming series on supercharging your career. But for now, what could you do tomorrow to be more useful to others?

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7 Comments

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  1. Adding Barriers to create action.

    I thought of a twist to your frequent Remove Barriers comments. Add Barriers to create action. What? Yes, add barriers, or more to the effect of acknowledge the barriers that exist in the future. I’ve found that this can be a great way to fight procrastination. Give yourself a reason why something is better to do now than later, and stamp it into your consciousness.

    I have a tendency for some tasks to push them off, and not really think about the consequences of that. For instance, I can’t get myself to buy food during the week from the grocery store. This causes me to spend more money eating out, which costs me more in gas too. The problem compounds when I’ve got a busy weekend, and don’t go shopping then either, and I end up eating out for a week or more.

    So, when I think to myself, I need groceries, I make sure to think about what it’ll cost not getting groceries now. That’s the best friend of procrastination, not considering the future costs of an action. I also try and force myself to do something as an alternative that I might not want to do to motivate me to do what I should now. For instance, I might say that I can’t just walk across the street to buy from one of the ten local Chinese restaurants, but I have to go across town. In that case, I’d rather goto the grocery store, and problem solved, unless I’m really craving Chinese like I am now.

    Just a thought. I’m trying.

  2. Strange way to solve a problem. You’d think there would be a smarter way than to make it some guy’s job to flip cars between spots. Maybe not, you can never put something so dumb past municipal bureaucrats.

  3. I am familiar with the manipulation of clinical data by the drug companies to make the results appear more impressive than they actually are, such as the “relative VS absolute risk” tactic you present here.

    I wonder how much statistic manipulation happens with the fund companies.

  4. pen and paper are always very important.. it’ll come into handy when u have a pen with you, and also paper for notes (in stead of writing on palm)

  5. I presented a model over the summer that only predicted 9% of the variance in a given population. That’s an r of .3. Someone in the audience thought that was HUGE. Know why? If you’re analyzing a billion dollar problem, reducing that problem by 9% is equivalent to a lot of money. It may not be a huge chunk of the problem, but it’s a huge chunk of money.

    So . . . even though reducing a person’s overall rate of a heart attack by 2.2% isn’t solving a huge chunk of the problem, given how many people suffer from heart attacks 2.2% equals saving ALOT of life.

    It’s like investing $10 in a stock that grows 1000% ($100 profit) vs. investing $1000 in a stock that only grows 15% ($150 profit). The rational person would prefer the latter over the former.

  6. I’ve been wondering how to keep my resume alive while I stay at home full-time mothering. “Being useful” will not only keep my resume moving, but also help make connections for when I am ready to enter the career world again. Volunteering part-time at places related to careers that interest me is a perfect way to be useful. I’ll be making some phone calls Monday.

  7. Jennifer,

    Another great example of spin. Present it any way you like, but the drug companies exaggerate the results of their studies to make them look more favorable.