I’m not sure when I learned that being indispensable was a bad career strategy or who I learned it from. I just know that I did learn it.
- If you are indispensable it is hard to take vacations and work reasonable hours.
- If you are indispensable then you cannot be promoted. (Think about it. Who would do what you are doing now?)
I work for myself so you’d think I am indispensable to my business. If you rely on a weekly Meeting With Your Writing, I can’t just cancel those meetings because I’m sick, or want to take a vacation, or have been invited to a university campus to give a keynote and workshop at their annual Research Enhancement Conference. This is why I’ve been building a team for my business, including people who can host A Meeting With Your Writing when I’m away.
Are you indispensable?
There are definitely aspects of your work that only you can do or that only you can do in the way that you do them. The problem comes when you feel indispensable to other tasks that keep you away from doing those things.
If you were indispensable to your teaching, you’d never be able to take a sabbatical or change what you teach. Teaching is an important part of your work, just like A Meeting With Your Writing is an important part of mine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally have someone else take over for a week. If particular subjects are considered essential to a degree program, no one teacher should be the only person who can teach that subject well (even if each of you would teach it somewhat differently).
You are not indispensable to student support. Your institution provides all kinds of support that complements your role. Are you directing students to those support services — the writing centre, counselling services, the careers centre, etc?
You should not be indispensable to service roles either. If you ever hear yourself say “If I don’t do it, no one else will.” ask yourself what that means about the importance of that particular task. Anything crucial to the running of your institution, department, or program should not grind to a halt if you were struck by lightning.
Only you can do the sleeping, eating, and other self-care that makes it possible for you to do everything else. And yet this is often the stuff you give up to do all those other things. University policies and practices are not good at considering this in relation to teaching and sick leave. Are you giving these foundational activities the time and attention they deserve?
You are indispensable to your research but do you really need to do every task? How could you use research assistants, technical experts, and others to allow you to focus on the parts that are your best contribution? Have you been keeping your research ambitions small to avoid having to figure out the difficult parts of working with a team, or apply for a grant to be able to support a team? What would you be able to do if you had a team?
Thinking more broadly about research, it always produces more questions than it answers. Are you really indispensable to all of it? Or can you give some of those questions away and focus your energy on the ones that are most interesting to you? This is especially important in the later part of your career. If you think only you can answer these questions, how do you retire? How can you pass the baton to a new generation?
Your value is not in your indispensability
The fact that someone else could do (some of) what you do, means that the value you contribute can shift and change over time. Everything you do contributes value. It doesn’t matter if someone else could have done it. Your work is still valuable.
Furthermore, when you do particular work in your particular way, you contribute unique value. There is something important about how you do it. And there is something important about how someone else would do it.
You don’t need to be indispensable. You need to make your best contribution.
Edited June 1, 2016.