Sep 20

You are Replaceable. Congratulations!


Yes, you heard me right. You are replaceable. And this should be a relief to you. Many times we feel the work we do is so unique and that without it the company/industry/economy/world will fall apart without us. I believed this at one point, but in reality this is all a grand delusion.  At first, this realization can be quite depressing. I was to me. After all the school and training, sleepless nights on call and torture of my adrenal glands, if a big boulder were to fall on me Wile E. Coyote style…


Life would go on. Some would mourn, tears may even be shed as people spoke of my exaggerated awesomeness at my funeral, and then…life would go on. I would be replaced at work within a few months with a person of similar training (and maybe even as good looking). People would step-up in the interval and fulfill the needs of the world that I was providing. Friends and family would eventually move on with their lives. Within a blink of time on a cosmic scale, sadly I will be forgotten.


You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.

Chuck Palahniuk


Thank you Tyler Durden. I admit it; I once suffered from ‘special snowflake syndrome’. After all, these ideas are drilled into our heads from day one by our parents, teachers and even (maybe most insidiously) by advertisers. Come on admit it, those clever advertisements make you feel pretty darn unique. ‘There is no one like you; you’re 1 in a million!’*


Remember, if everyone is special, no one is.


Shit! I though this blog was about happiness? That sounds like some pretty negative stuff. Maybe this website should be called The Depressing and Melancholy Philosopher.


Now before we break out the country music and bourbon let’s see how we can use this information to our advantage. I was initially a little depressed when I realized I was not the unique little butterfly my parents told me I was, but the more I thought about it, I realized this was actually one of the most liberating and important concepts I’ve stumbled upon.  We have more freedom than we think because the world will not fall apart in our absence. If the world won’t fall apart because of my decisions then I have no reason to feel guilty or ashamed about the choices I make.


Why won’t the world fall apart?


Humans have been the most successful and dominant species on this planet for the last few thousand years, expanding our footprint to almost every environment possible.  There are lots of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest are our ability to work together to achieve a greater goal, and the persistence of our knowledge through the use of spoken and written language.  Unlike other species, we can adapt to a changing world through something other than natural selection through genetics – a notoriously slow and messy process. This is what makes humans such a dominant force in the world, our resiliency, persistence and flexibility.


This means family, community and most importantly (sarcasm) the company you work for will survive without you. It will evolve and adapt. There may be creative destruction, but the world will go on. You don’t matter. I don’t care if you are a dictator of a small country or CEO of some organization that will produce the next widget that will change the course of humanity, you are replaceable.


I know this stuff sounds kind of counter-intuitive and wrong, after all if Steve Jobs didn’t do his thing we wouldn’t have smartphones and iWatches right? What about Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and the guy who invented Google? Certainly they are not replaceable!


Wrong. They are just as replaceable as you.  People only seem this important because of a very important cognitive flaw called ‘survivorship bias’. We can only see one reality because, well, there is only one reality. We see the only thread of existence that survived and thus can’t really imagine another one. This makes all these great people seem ultra-important and unreplaceable, when all they actually did was survive.  What is not known is how things would have turned out if they had simply quit doing what they were doing and decided to go down a different path. Maybe Steve Jobs quit his computer job at age 30 and started a small company providing world class information on how to raise llamas. Maybe the smartphone and tablet never gets invented. Crap! What on earth would we do!?!




Well, some other entrepreneur or business would have thrived in this vacuum and would develop something else. The investment and resources that went into iPhones would have gone into something different. Who knows, it may even be cooler that what we have now.  Maybe we would all have USB 6 ports in the back of our skulls and just directly plug into one big matrix-esque consciousness. Probably not…but we will never know for sure. Also it is impossible to know that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have done something even MORE amazing than what he did at Apple. Maybe he would have started a company that revolutionized the llama industry, simultaneously solving the world’s food, transportation and ‘affordable but warm and breathable’ sweater problem.


My point is that whatever job you have now, the world can replace what you do or find an alternative without missing a beat. Nature abhors a vacuum. If what you did was valuable and awesome, someone else will learn to do it because humans are relentless in their quest for advancement. There are 7.3 billion of us wandering around ready to pick up the slack.


Now this is pretty radical for some to accept so let me clarify something as you are typing those angry responses in the comment section.


You are absolutely replaceable and unnecessary to ‘the world’ but you are everything and unreplaceable to ‘your world’. There is a huge difference here. Each one of us is at the absolute center of our universe. Every thought, emotion, and desire you have involves that little squishy little grey blob that’s in your skull. This is why we feel so important, because we ARE important in our own personal worlds. Remember this the next time someone tells you that you are not replaceable. It is their world, not yours that this comes from. Understanding this concept may make it easier to start saying no to obligations that don’t suit you.


Don’t listen to anyone who uses the argument that you should keep working until you are 65 or whenever because you owe something to the world.  You don’t. More importantly don’t listen to that voice in your head telling you to keep working because you are ‘necessary’ and you will be ‘letting people down’ if you quit. You are replaceable. You don’t matter. Repeat this mantra.


Work because what you do is meaningful to you and brings you joy. If your job doesn’t do this, then work just long enough to become financially free and go do something that does bring you joy (like llama farming). If you really hate your job then consider quitting before financial independence and doing something else. Create something meaningful. Life is too short.


Whatever unique skills and talents you have, your world needs them, but the world will be just fine no matter what.


Many people will simply refuse to believe this. That’s OK. We can’t unplug everyone from the matrix. It exists for a reason. Like I said, this idea is counter to our intuition and goes against everything we are taught, but accepting this little truth and changing your mindset will set you free.


 *Which incidentally implies that there are 7300 people pretty much just like you with the current world population of 7.3 billion.





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    • Dr. H on September 20, 2016 at 6:42 pm
    • Reply

    I love your blog but I disagree with this. We all have ramifications on the world at large. I’m not a special snowflake but I do think that privilege comes with responsibility to the world. Especially in medicine despite its failings. Your success is not in a vacuum and neither are your actions. And we did take up government sponsored training dollars and slots that could have been used by others. Does this mean you need to work until 70, 50 or even 40 years old? No. But I don’t agree that being replaceable equals lack of responsibility.

    1. Thanks for your comment Dr. H, and I’m glad you are enjoying the blog!

      I absolutely agree that our actions have consequences and that our success is not in a vacuum.

      I disagree though that we have a responsibility to work if we do not have to. In medicine specifically there is such a high level of misery, burnout and suicide it is heartbreaking. You are correct the government subsidizes education and training costs to some degree, but there is also a massive amount that is paid for by the individual in terms of time and money. The system could be designed to force mandatory service like the military, but it is not. You owe nothing to the system, and it owes nothing to you. Our entire economy is based on trading time for money. Once that trade no longer makes sense then I say stop doing it.

      Once I started leaning into love and joy, and leaning away from guilt and shame I became happy. And happy people are who really change the world for the better. Responsibility is a nicer way to say guilt, and I think guilt is toxic. I want you to work because you love it, not because you feel obligated. We work harder and better when it is for love rather than a sense of responsibility.

      I’ll attack this issue from other angles in future posts that hopefully will expand upon these ideas, your comment got me thinking 🙂

  1. RIGHT ON, HP!

    When a client or employee thinks they are so valuable I remind them we replace the President of the United States every 4 or 8 years and we do just fine. And none of us are as important as the POTUS! It keeps all events in my life in perspective also.

    But I bet you will catch plenty of heck for your opinion here. The comments should prove entertaining if your nerves can handle it.

    1. I expect many will not agree with this post, but that’s OK. When people challenge our views that is when we grow and learn. I want people think deeply about these issues and then come up with a view that is in harmony with their values. The world would indeed be a very strange place if everyone agreed with me 😉

    • M on September 20, 2016 at 8:14 pm
    • Reply

    Dr. H, I don’t know that the HP is advocating abdication of all responsibility or equating replaceability with it. Rather, he recommends pursuing meaningful work that brings you joy. In medicine, many of us find that meaning and joy in helping our patients. But some of us, while we know the work is meaningful, have lost the joy. As good as I may be, I know there’s another doctor out there who could slide into my chair and do what I do. After six months, I will be mostly forgotten outside of my world.

    There’s a saying that goes something like, “If you don’t know how to make yourself happy, make someone else happy.” I think that many doctors no longer derive joy from making their patients feel better because of all the headaches in medicine nowadays. But I would bet there are other ways in which doctors could bring back that sense of personal joy by focusing on other work/volunteerism/etc that makes other people happy, thereby bringing joy back into the life of the doctor. Even if it is outside the context of practicing medicine.

    1. Agree. Responsibility and replaceable are different, although I don’t like the concept of responsibility because it is too much associated with guilt, which is an emotion to be avoided (unless it is for a really good reason like we are harming someone). Much better to do things for joy, not enough of that in the world.

    • VagabondMD on September 20, 2016 at 8:20 pm
    • Reply

    Great blog and so true, it seems to be a lesson learned as one matures.

    1. I definitely thought I was much less replaceable when I was younger, now I realize I’m just an expensive widget.

  2. Absolutely, this is good news. It helps me ignore any of the “you’re wasting your training” or “you owe the world something or other” talk. By the time I’m done, I will have helped tens of thousands, and I know there are others waiting in the wings to pick up where I left off. They may not be quite as skilled or even half as good lookin’, but the job will get done.

    The Catholic guilt that penetrated my being at some point during organogenesis makes me wonder if retiring early is the wrong thing to do. Logic tells me otherwise.

    Thanks for the post, Philosopher.

    1. Lol! Logic and emotion are intertwined for sure. In an ideal world we do work we can’t imagine retiring from. The guilt and shame of “wasting your training” is a very real thing. I’ve seen many people struggle with this.

  3. Man, stupid smartphones, nobody told me I could have had a USB port in the back of my skull 🙂

    Working at a big company for a decade you start to realize that no matter how important one player might be, when they move on the wheels keep turning.

    1. Hahaha, maybe the jacks are coming someday. I mean they are already contemplating human head transplants.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. The world span before I came into it and it will spin when I leave it. The only real place I make an irreplaceable make is on those who love me and those I love. That’s why your priorities need to be there.

    • minervaMD on September 29, 2016 at 6:01 am
    • Reply

    The ‘system’ doesn’t care about you. The system doesn’t have feelings. There are a few colleagues and/or directors/department chairs, etc. that may care what you do, but you don’t owe them anything. I learned this the hard way when I gave my heart and soul to bettering the department I am working for (quality improvement and building IT systems capabilities–in addition to my role as a radiologist), and then with a new leadership change, they tossed my role aside and discounted all my efforts. It was like a kick in the face. I recognize that I am allowing that to make me bitter, but it set me on a path of deciding how I can “check out” as soon as possible. I am a bit jaded now, which I don’t like. But, on the other hand, perhaps it was a good lesson to learn . . . I don’t want to give my “heart and soul” to a system that doesn’t really care (because remember, systems don’t have feelings). But, I absolutely agree that what you do matters enormously to you personally and your immediate family. So, why not optimize for the good you can do in your immediate circle of influence. This may be in medicine, but it may also be in being the kind of parent that is totally there for kids and someone who is doing what matters to them (and not putting all that behind the so-called priority of full-time work).

    1. Agree. Systems and institutions don’t care one bit about us, but sometimes people in the system or institution do. It is great to put your heart and soul into work as long as it is for the right reasons, but you are right, expecting a system to care about you is a poor wager. Work for money, joy, satisfaction of helping people, etc. but just be mindful that we are all replaceable. Thx for the comment.

  5. I agree. Nothing we do is so special or amazing that it can’t be done by someone else. Keep striving for greatness, but stay humble and grounded.

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