Thoughts on being replaceable
Michael K. Shaub, February 2nd, 2016
I have been thinking lately about how to better use my time. The truth is, I am always thinking about that rather than actually doing it. But I have been trying to give serious thought to the things I should say no to, and the things I should embrace and do with all my heart. Part of my preoccupation with this derives from my having read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, and part from trying to figure out what really matters in life.
Most of my values are reasonably well formed, though I may not live up to them consistently. I don’t struggle so much with what is important or valuable, but with what is priority, what comes first. I often fail in my priority because I give a little bit of attention to a lot of issues, and my job is such that I can do that and feel, in the moment, that I am making a contribution. But I am lying to myself.
One of the hardest decisions for me is whether to accept speaking engagements. Who doesn’t want to hear himself speak, or want to be asked? But the truth is that the things I talk about are things that any number of people are perfectly capable of addressing and, in most cases, more eloquently. What I need to decide is which situations warrant the investment of preparing for that speech.
I think the answer for where I should focus my efforts is where I am less replaceable. At some level, accounting professors are all replaceable. If you are looking for an accounting professor, there are any number of people who fit the bill. People might like certain characteristics of one more than the other, but there are a lot of people who can fill the role. I am less replaceable in certain teaching contexts than others, so it makes sense that those warrant more of my attention.
But many times we are disappointed to find out that we are replaceable. I used to teach at a small liberal arts school, and in my last year there, I was named professor of the year. Since I was still relatively early in my career, I was under the impression that my leaving the college would have a significant impact on the students and the accounting program. I went back the next May to attend the graduation of those juniors whom I had taught. And though I was welcome, and they greeted me warmly, it was clear that life had moved on just fine without me.
Our replaceability in most contexts may seem depressing, but it is actually quite freeing if you are the type of person who has difficulty saying no. I control my choice to make the highest contribution I can to others’ lives, to my family, to my workplace, and to my continued growth and development. Greg McKeown makes the point in Essentialism that if we do not choose for ourselves, someone will choose for us.
With national signing day for football this week, numerous high school students will be given the impression, through conversations with coaches and reading about themselves on message boards, that they are irreplaceable. That may be true for a few, but only for a limited period of time. And believing that it is true can lead to all kinds of dysfunctional behavior.
Replaceability has the potential to produce the kind of humility that frees us to maximize our contribution while living a priority-driven life. Ironically, failure and burnout can accomplish the same thing, as I have learned on more than one occasion.
But my hope, in this stage of my career, is to let this realization that there is a finite end to my productivity light a fire in me to maximize my contribution today. I can prepare students for my profession and encourage them to adopt the values that will sustain it. I can engage in one-on-one conversations aimed at helping them do that, and in helping them understand their own values. I can invest in the one woman I will ever love and, to the extent I am given entry into their lives, in my children and grandchildren. And I can continue my research in the two or three areas where I make my maximum contribution.
And I can write.
But I will only do these things if I am humble enough to know that I am not necessary for everything and that it is okay to say no to things that others can readily do. My goal for this year is to make real progress in that endeavor.