It’s no surprise that navigating life is challenging, and there isn’t a GPS on the planet that can handle all the weird and unbelievable potholes, roadblocks, and detours every one of us faces. Sometimes it feels like just getting through the day sucks up every last drop of my energy, and I wonder how others make it look so effortless. I’ve made no secret of the fact that this particular chapter of my life is a chapter of transition and trepidation, and while I wish there was a solid map to follow or a way to alleviate all of my fears and concerns along the way, I haven’t yet found it, and every day, I learn a little something new. One of the things I’m learning – or maybe it’s relearning, actually, is that like everyone else, I am not indispensable. I’m not sure if that’s a double-negative or if there’s a better way to word it because, either way, it feels diminishing and devaluing.
I got a very short email today from the place where I’ve worked for the last ten years. It was an email to begin the process of scheduling my exit interview – something I’ve been expecting for a while, even though my official exit date is still a couple of months away. The email asked when I’d be available for the interview, then reminded me I would be expected to turn in my keys, ID, any library books I might have borrowed, and any credit cards I had from my employer. Credit cards? Wow. Since I haven’t been able to get ink cartridges for the past two years that I didn’t pay for with my own funds, that one kind of made me laugh. But underneath my laugh was this tiny realization that in a couple of months, I’ll become invisible to the same place which has demanded my time, energy, talent, creativity, and loyalty for the past ten years. Isn’t there a better or gentler way to remind me that they’d like me to return old library books and keys than in the same email that requests the honor of my presence at a meeting to complete the breakup?
It’s strange how dispensable we all really are. I know we don’t like to think of ourselves that way, and even those of us who decidedly do NOT have a savior complex don’t like to be made aware how quickly we’ll be replaced, usually before our bodies are even cold. A couple of months ago, I stopped in to see a couple of colleagues in their office, and one of them mentioned that he was happy I would be joining the ranks of those who had chosen to retire early. The eyebrows on the other colleague, a young woman in her early 30s, flew up so fast I am surprised they didn’t catch air. Forgetting herself, she didn’t congratulate me or wish me well; she just gasped, “That means there will be a full-time position available in the department, doesn’t it?” She went on to explain that she had been trying and applying for three or four years for a position, but they kept going to others instead. When I walked away, I couldn’t help thinking about what a reminder it was that I am, indeed, expendable and that there will be more than one colleague waiting to claw for the small space that opens up when I leave.
This should be a good lesson to me that being dispensable is not the worst thing in the world; in fact, I want to get myself to a place where I realize what a good thing it is to be replaceable. First, it means that I don’t think so much of myself as to think I’m the be all and end all of whatever it is I’m doing that makes me think no one else can fill these worn out shoes. Second, it means that I have enough confidence in my own value to think that there is actually a reason for someone to continue the work I’ve been doing. Wouldn’t it suck if my life’s work just went away and there was no point in anyone picking up the mantle and carrying on? And third, being replaceable means that I have other options, too. I’m not indentured or imprisoned by a position or set of responsibilities that will weigh heavily on my shoulders until I simply drop from the burden of them. Right now, though I may be nervous because I don’t have a GPS to tell me every single turn to make along the journey, I have lots of options, and I can choose to take a path that suits me at any given moment. That’s kind of cool, and it’s exactly the message and advice I’ve been giving my students for the past ten years when I have told them to do something they love and be confident that the money will almost always follow. I have told them not to stay in a job or career where they don’t feel challenged or appreciated, and who am I to give advice and think I am too good to follow it myself?
I guess that, even if the word sounds offensive and diminishing, and even if the email I got today wasn’t exactly worded in a way that made me feel like a valued and beloved member of the workplace I’ve shared so much of my time, talent, and treasure with, I am deciding right now to embrace being dispensable and replaceable, and I am going to welcome all the new and exciting opportunities and adventures that present themselves during the transition and into the next chapter. And I’m going to try to do it with a sense of humor and with a conscious effort to make others in my path feel valuable because, when it comes down to it, all of us are always in transition, aren’t we?