Saturday, December 8, 2012

Think again; you are replaceable

It may be a shocker for any star player.  But here is the truth.  
You are replaceable.  
By believing and acting like you are not, you are not only failing to perform at your peak, but also doing a disservice to your team by putting your ego ahead of team's objective.

Everyone is prone to make this mistake.  The more talented and dedicated the person is, the more likely he is to fall into this trap.  I admit that I was totally one of the victims.

It's true that you are unique as individual,
but your contribution is replaceable at work.
Act accordingly.
When I first got out of my graduate school, I thought that I knew everything there was to learn in programming.  Given enough coffee and all nighters, I was confident that I could get through the toughest assignments.  I knew I could get things done.

Right after school, I joined a startup.  I was the employee number one.  Soon the team grew to about a dozen, and I felt that I was leading the pack.  When it came to generating ideas, implementing them, validating the theory with data, I was always the one to lay the course.

But I was doing so without any regards to how the rest of the team was doing.  I routinely opposed what my boss had to say during meetings based on the technical merits (or the lack of in my view).  I considered any team assignment as a chance to outshine my team members.  When questions were asked of me by teammates, I thought it was because I knew more than the others.

I could not have been more wrong.  It took me years to realize this.  

After rendering my resignation at the startup, I somehow thought that they will extend the offer to hold on to me.  They didn't.  Instead, they wished me well, and sent me home to my barely furnished apartment.

At the time I really thought that they would not survive without me.  With all the codes, scripts, docs that I wrote, it would not be possible to continue operating without my help.  But slowly the team got up to speed with what I wrote.  I remember getting a couple of emails to explain my code.  That was about it.  The team picked up what was left of me, and I'm sure they made it even better.

Coming out of the startup, I started an open source project on Source Forge.  I started a consulting gig on the side, but it never got off the ground.  The truth was that I knew how to code, but I did not know crap about how to market anything.  Nor did I know how to collaborate with people to work together instead of compete with each other.

Even when choosing an open source project, I could have joined someone else started.  No, I could not do that as a Mr. Irreplaceable.  I had to create something of my own.  Now no one remembers the project that I started on.  I don't even know if the code remains.

I often see this fallacy from smart, ambitious recent graduates.  They often think that they are the smartest one, and they are the one who are irreplaceable.  Once they have written the core module that no one else can understand, they think that they are the leaders.

It's sad, but it's true.  Everyone is replaceable.  It simply means that the life goes on without you, whether you like it or not.  

The focus of anyone's work is not the work itself.  It's the impact that it has on other people's lives.  To make our work impact the most people, we have to understand we ourselves cannot be the center of our focus.

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