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.
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.