I heard a quote once when I was younger that vexed me for a very long time.
Don’t be irreplaceable, because if you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.
I struggled with this quote for the longest time. Was I not supposed to try as hard as I could? Was I to always leave it a little bit left in the tank, not set the bar as high as I could? How could I share everything I had to offer if I couldn’t even be irreplaceable?
I think I mistook the word irreplaceable with being one-of-a-kind.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be original, unique unlike any other. And since leaving college I fooled myself into believing that an office was a good place to do that.
I have learned though that being irreplaceable and being one-of-a-kind are not mutually exclusive, because everybody is replaceable. Sure that substitute may not be as good, or as talented, but I’ve never been able to lie to myself enough to believe that nobody could do what I do in an office with at least a marginal degree of ability.
So I sought instead not to be one-of-a-kind, but to embrace the one-of-a-kindness that I felt within me.
That was hard.
And what is strange is the things that I thought I knew about myself, the seeds that stayed dormant beneath the surface of my soul, were things that others saw readily. They were the elements of my personality and myself that were much more apparent than I had let on. So much so that people came up to me with increasingly frequency and said: “What are you doing in an office?”
I didn’t know how to respond.
Making money I guess. Having a job. Doing what everybody else does.
Rarely do we start off a job in an office and then end up doing something completely different. The phrase “career path” is often a misnomer signifying a series of jobs that corresponded with the first job you just happened to take.
I might have an entirely different life had I accepted the very first job I was offered, to be the personal assistant to Sting’s manager.
That’s not a joke.
While possible exposure to celebrities and summers working from the Hamptons were appealing, hearing my interviewer say that my future boss “just needs a wife” somehow cued up the correct fear within me that this might not be the job for me.
If we are lucky enough to know what we want to do, or what we love, we might find ourselves pursuing a nontraditional life. But the word traditional has come to mean “office.”
I would be in complete shock if anybody has ever been told, “Man, you really belong in an office.”
Who belongs in an office?
The last couple of years I realized, certainly not me. But where did I belong? If I was being honest I had found very few places I felt like I belonged.
A summer camp for second grade boys out in the summer sun surrounded by pretty girls my age… I felt I belonged there.
Behind a bar I was comfortable, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there.
I thought I’d belong at a magazine or a nonprofit etc. But each time I moved I thought I’d feel instantly like it was coming home when really it was just getting me slightly closer to what I wanted to the way I wanted to feel.
I was incrimentalizing, as we all do, accepting marginal gains and victory.
And after many failed attempts at capturing the feeling I have realized: We don’t look for the places we belong, we create the places we belong. Nearly every place we have ever worked started out as somebody else’s thing. And that thing grew and grew until the identity changed, or it didn’t, but ultimately it maintained it’s own identity.
If we are lucky we get to contribute to a part of that identity, but for many of us we do not.
We look for what fits. People are puzzle pieces. Any puzzle has hundreds of pieces that don’t fit together, some that almost do, but only 2 that truly fit together.
And that is just one box. There are far more people in the world than in any one puzzle box.
All of these thoughts and feelings grew within me, swelled, pushed at me, all the while I had no real idea how to breakout of the cage that I was in.
Cage, that was it.
I started to think of chickens. I thought about how whenever I went to the grocery store I looked for the eggs of cage free hens. Birds that had the ability to roam free and produce something that was better because of it.
And then I sat at my desk and looked around my office, at my colleagues, at the other hens. And I realized: If I laid eggs, they would not be the kind of eggs you’d want to buy. I wanted to be the kind of chicken that made wanted eggs.
And so ultimately, I quit.
I’m not quitting a job, or an industry as I have so many other times. This time I’m quitting a mentality.
And that scares me. Scares me in a way I haven’t felt scared in a very long time because while I have a plan, a plan is just a map for a territory you have never explored before.
I don’t know the specifics of what really lies out there. I know the possible highs, and the ultimate lows, but the specifics? Not so much.
However the beauty of a possible unknown is so much more appealing to me than every possible reality I’ve witnessed working in offices over the past 10 years.
So I’m not trying to be irreplaceable, incomparable, or anything like that. I’m just trying to be happy, to do what makes me happy, and to live a life that allows for that.
And at that point, maybe I won’t care about belonging any more.