My father always told me to make myself indispensable. To prove to my employers, in whatever positions I held, that they needed me and wanted me and couldn't do without me. It's been pretty good advice through the years. The idea of indispensability is always at the back of my mind when I take on a new task or have to approach a situation in a different way. For me, determination and diligence are bred from the goal of becoming irreplaceable.
And yet, my father also always told me to remember that I am not indispensable. That my employer could always replace me, that I wasn't the only one who could do my job, that others were similarly qualified and equally skilled. It was a dose of reality from a disciplined man whose every decision, every command, seemed grounded in what was real and logical and sensible.
When I was a kid, I didn't see these two contradictory pieces of advice as the yin and yang of achievement, but rather, as a weird juxtaposition that confused me quite a lot. On one hand, who wouldn't work really, really hard given the underlying implication that if you don't, you become disposable? And on the other, why would you work really, really hard at anything if, in the end, you are just that: disposable?
But striving toward indispensability and knowing the truth about my dispensability actually make sense if I am truly driven by my own internal motivations. The idea of being irreplaceable - or replaceable, frankly - is less about my employer and how he or she thinks of me, and more about how I view myself. Do I have the confidence to take risks? Do I have the conviction to stand by my decisions? And are those decisions based in what I know about both my craft and my capabilities? In education, as in most jobs I would presume, if we don't innovate with confidence and conviction and skill, we won't last long.
It's a truth that we should both embrace in our professional lives and instill in our students, as my father instilled in me: a seemingly harsh reality to be avoided, perhaps, only by ambition, dedication, talent, and expertise.