My first major dose of career advice wasn’t quite something I’d call “inspirational.”

In fact, for someone new to the job force like I was, it was downright discouraging.

“Always remember: No matter what your job is, you will always be dispensable.”

This comes as a no-brainer to anyone who has ever worked a job. There will always be someone with similar notches in their belt to take over after you leave whatever-it-is you’re doing. But it was the first time I’d really thought about dispensability. And while I knew the advice was true, it seemed to be more threatening than helpful. It offered only restrictive, cautionary guidance – not proactive, positive guidance. So I spun it. Be as indispensable as possible, I began telling myself.

Not Just Another Brick In The Wall

In the movie Born Rich, the narrator interviews several friends who are set to inherit massive fortunes of family wealth. At one point during the film, the narrator asked his friends what they’d like to do with their lives. “I want to be indispensable,” answered one friend. His answer strikes at the core of our existence, transcending both class and occupation. In a time of staggering unemployment and highly-qualified people scrambling to find jobs, dispensability seems to be at the forefront of our collective unconscious. But there are things we can do to minimize our own dispensability. When viewed from the opposite angle – that we should maximize our indispensability – we can unlock many doors of opportunity.

The Window Expert

My favorite example of indispensability involves an assembly line worker at a car plant – a position not famous for its upward mobility or job security. Having installed windows on assembly line cars for a good number of years, the man grew frustrated with his career stagnation. He’d been laid off multiple times, and was fed up with being undervalued. Thus, he began to learn as much as he could about window glass. He learned everything possible about how it was made and how it could be improved, and brought new ideas to the upper ranks. Soon enough, he had become the go-to guy when there were questions about window glass. He was quickly promoted, and eventually rose to become one of the top leaders at the manufacturing plant. He’d maximized his indispensability.

Differentiate and Maximize Your Personal ROI

Indispensability is about providing unique value few others can provide. In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, he provides a baseline for what it takes to be indispensable:

You don’t become indispensable merely because you are different. But the only way to become indispensable is to be different. That’s because if you’re the same, so are plenty of other people.

After realizing the importance of being different and standing out, we can then ask ourselves a further question: What’s my personal ROI to my client or employer? Thinking about your personal ROI brings you closer to finding solutions that maximize your personal value in different and unique ways. Following are a few of those solutions I’ve witnessed over the years:

  1. Innovate and contribute new ideas. New ideas help companies compete and progress, and it’s hard to survive without them. Don’t just take a job and do it, but actively think of ways to innovate and do it better.
  2. Work smarter, not just harder. Working hard is admirable, but working smart is both admirable and efficient (and thus more valuable). Know how to use the tools at your disposal, embrace new tools, and systematize as many tasks as possible.
  3. Learn and provide unique skills. Don’t hide your unique skills and talents – they very well might come in handy someday.
  4. Be positive and passionate. Positivity and passion are motivational steroids for anyone exposed to them. They allow you to increase your own value by motivating and increasing the value of the people you work with.

Indispensability is like perfection. It’s never possible to achieve it entirely, but we can always strive towards improvement. As a final note, I would argue our innate dispensability is a good thing. It pushes us to think and innovate. It encourages us to become creative problem solvers in an industry that demands more and more creativity every day.

What are some other tips for attaining indispensability in the eyes of both clients and employers?