Let me ask you a question: could you disappear? If you didn’t show up at work tomorrow, if you weren’t home at 6:00 for dinner, if nobody ever heard from or saw you again, would it matter?
OK, these are depressing things to think about, but that’s exactly how many people feel, day in and day out, in their jobs and even at home. They feel unappreciated, unchallenged, ineffective, and in the end, completely irrelevant.
In some cases, it’s the situation itself, and if the paragraphs above describe you, you really need to be thinking about how you can change or get out of your situation. Maybe you work for jerks, maybe your job simply has nothing to offer society, maybe your marriage long since stopped working, maybe you’ve fallen in with a group of friends who ultimately aren’t very good friends.
But in most cases, it is what we bring to our jobs, our home lives, our social lives – or, more to the point, what we don’t bring – that leaves us feeling, well… disposable. And if you’re going to turn that around, you’re going to have to start by making some real changes in your life and in yourself.
None of the ideas below are easy – but none are impossible, either. All they require is that you make a conscious choice to make yourself indispensable, make a plan, and put that plan into action. You might be surprised at how much your life can change – and often, how quickly!
One reason people can feel like they don’t matter is because they’re “out of the loop”, cut off from where things happen. In today’s world, this is practically inexcusable. The Internet as a whole is little more than a giant social networking tool, and tools explicitly for bringing people together – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Skype, and on and on – abound.
Join and use one or two choice social networking tools. Off-line, select 10 or 20 people who are prominent in your field and introduce yourself to them. Write them letters or email, give them a call, leave comments on their blogs, whatever it takes to make yourself known and to show what you’re capable of. Don’t fawn; approach them as equals or, at least, as potential mentors.
Finally, join and become active in professional or recreational organizations – especially groups that are local to where you live and work. Use MeetUp to find local meetings of people who share your profession, interests, or hobbies.
Both the easiest and hardest thing we humans do is love. It’s easy because we’re made for it, wired up in all sorts of ways to respond to and offer affection, social unity, and physical presence; it’s hard because to truly love means to make ourselves incredibly vulnerable and, in our society, it’s very hard to find it in ourselves to trust that deeply.
But try it. And not just with your partner, your kids, your parents and siblings – try to be a loving, caring person in all your relationships. I’m not suggesting you break any laws or anything, only that you approach every person you interact with as a person with their own needs, desires, and motivations and see how you can help them satisfy them. Look out for the people around you, be there when they need someone to lean on, and be open with them about your own life.
No, not the spreadsheet. Be excellent at something. Figure out the thing that is most satisfying to you and learn how to do it better than anyone else. That might mean a trip to the library, a couple of night classes, or a full graduate education. But whatever it means, do it – there are few specialities in this world so esoteric that there isn’t a powerful demand for people who do it incredibly well.
Your world changes when you create something and put it out into the world for everyone to benefit from, whether it’s a book, a blog, a painting, an invention, a magazine article, a weekly newsletter, a company, a piece of furniture, or a recipe. Partially it’s because suddenly you’re useful to someone, no matter how few, but mostly it’s because the things we create contain a little part of us, a spark of who we are – a spark that much of our society conspires to smother and hide away.
Although innovation is a creative exercise, I’ve chosen to treat it as something different from creating something because innovation, to me, is about solving problems rather than personal expression. Yes, that’s an artificial distinction. Bear with me, please.
It would be an understatement to say that the world, and the people in it, have more problems than we know how to deal with. Some are extreme – hunger, pollution, illness. Some are less so – boredom, ennui, dissatisfaction. Figure out how to solve any of those problems, and you will be anything but disposable!
Around here, we talk a lot about being productive, about avoiding distractions and keeping focused on your goals and overcoming procrastination. But as humans, it its crucially important that, at times, we be entertained. And it’s just as important, from time to time, that we be reassured. A joke, a compliment, an engaging discussion about the latest film or book – these things add a little light to the lives of those around you. Being the guy or gal people can trust to brighten up their day will always attract attention.
As a teacher, I know first-hand the feeling of helping people to learn, of sharing a new way of looking at their world and giving them tools to make their own way in it. No matter what your areas of expertise are, there are people out there who want – no, need – to know it so they can have more power over their own destinies. It’s not all that hard to put together a class, seminar, or workshop on just about any topic – check with your local community college or university extension program for starters – but not all teaching needs to be formal instruction, either. Seek out opportunities to share what you know informally throughout the day.
Eccentricity is valuable not just because it can be quite entertaining, but because it represents a significant difference in the way you view the world. While this can be alienating to some people – usually people who are already alienated by the rest of their lives – others will seek out and reward you handsomely for your insights.
How do you become eccentric? Short of taking lots of LSD, which I don’t advice, I’m really not sure. I include there because it’s one way to make yourself indispensable, not because it’s easy to do! But if you can’t just flip a switch and become eccentric, maybe you can learn the lesson eccentrics teach – to seek out the different. Closely examine your own life for the parts you’ve let be suppressed – or suppressed yourself – and bring them out into the light of day. Embrace the things you’ve worked so hard to hide.
That’s a start, anyway.
What matters in all these points is that you make a difference in people’s lives. Do that, and the world – or at least some of the world – will hang on your every action. As you go though your daily life, keep an eye out for the ways in which you can make a difference, however great or small. What little tweaks might make someone’s life or job a little bit easier? What systems or processes are just fundamentally wrong, and how would you fix them?
Adopt a difference-oriented mindset. Overthrow your commitment to the status quo, because the road to the status quo is littered with the husks of disposable people. Do that, and the rest will follow, and you will have become indispensable.
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