In concentration camps, certain prisoners were selected by their captors to hold more advantaged positions within the population of the camp.
Since these people possessed creative, linguistic or industrial skills, the guards viewed them as valuable assets. They gave them access to material benefits beyond those available to others, like warmer clothes, better shelter and more food.
My friend wrote and directed a documentary about this very phenomenon. The story was about a man and a woman, both of whom became privileged prisoners. They used their artistic talents like singing and sewing to keep away from death’s door and bring inspiration and freedom to fellow prisoners.
Naturally, it’s hard not to experience feelings of guilt, sadness and for the prisoners who weren’t so fortunate as they were. And you have to wonder just how much contempt the other captives felt towards them. Meanwhile, there’s also a lesson about the liberation of usefulness.
I notice this trope prison stories of all kinds, both truth and fiction. People free themselves, both literally and psychologically, from the horrors that countless others suffered.
But it’s not the kind of privilege they were born or lucked into. People advocated for their own worth. They vocalized their talents and gifts to the guards. They made their value paramount in the face of overwhelming trauma and managed to survive.
That’s power. And you don’t have to do five years in the crowbar hotel to understand.
I’ve never been to jail myself, except that one night in high school when my friends and I got caught stealing holiday lawn ornaments, and got thrown into the holding cell at the police station until our parents came and picked us up.
That doesn’t really count. It was more fun that it was traumatic.
Point being, the liberation of usefulness is available to us all. There is not a single person on this earth who doesn’t bring talent to the table that’s transferable everywhere they go. What’s missing from the equation is permission, classification, communication and evolution.
Let’s unpack each of those variable.
First comes permission.
If you want to liberate yourself through usefulness, it starts with belief. You have to accept that you contain multitudes. You have to trust that your gifts are worthy of being used.
Now, many people lack such a mindset, through no fault of their own. Hostile, unsupportive or traumatic upbringing can make people allergic to taking ownership of their own value. If there are no positive role models like parents, relatives, teachers, coaches and clergy to remind people just how amazing they are, then it’s going to be an uphill battle as an adult.
Regardless, there must be a baseline belief that usefulness is possible.
Second comes classification.
With personal experience, feedback from trusted voices, and possibly a little research, people have to understand the linguistic context with which to frame their gifts.
As an example, I spent my first dozen or so years of my career as an entrepreneur, writing books and giving speeches. But when I transitioned to the corporate world, it took me a good month to figure out the transferability of my skills.
I had to read hundreds of job descriptions and interview dozens of people who knew me well to realize, oh wow, so that’s what organizations might call the skills I bring to the table. Got it.
That’s when the third step begins, communication.
Once you’ve given yourself permission to be useful and learned the right language for naming your talent, now you have operationalize that narrative. This step took me another job or two.
Honing in on how to communicate usefulness from an organizational perspective is hard. You have to pay close attention to the way people respond to the value you create. When they complement your work, you have note down how it fits into their reality so you can replicate and scale it going forward.
I remember my first performance review at the agency I worked for years ago. My boss told me that my organizational skills brought order to chaos, and my creative skills brought clarity to the team’s collective execution.
Well I’m be dammed. So that’s how my talent stack fits into the broader team.
Finally, after you check the boxes of permission, classification and communication, there’s one final step. Evolution.
Expanding your skills. Finding new iterations of your value as you grow.
This is my favorite part of the liberation of usefulness. Because it’s all about possibility and maturity. For example, say you execute a project that stretches your creative rubber band quite a bit, but doesn’t break it.
And once you earn positive outcomes, you look back and think, huh. Maybe there’s an adjacent skill here that I didn’t realize I had. Maybe there’s a new facet of my asset that’s showing up these days.
Like a rare stone that, if inspected closely under a new microscope, reveals a new inclusion nobody noticed before. That’s evolution. You look within and think, where there’s one, there’s a ton. The fact that this happened means it’s possible.
In summary, the liberation of usefulness involves the permission, classification, communication and evolution of value.
It’s available to us all, and we don’t have to go to prison to access it. We merely have to advocate for our own worth. To vocalize our talents and gifts. To do whatever it takes to make our value paramount.
Remember, privilege doesn’t have to be a dirty word. If you use it to thrive and help others do the same, then we’re all free.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What are the characteristics of the most supportive possible environment that you can think of?