Like many people who have had long careers and experienced the inevitable ups and downs that go with any long-term venture, I often reflexively respond to those asking for life-changing advice by telling them to do what you love. Actually it’s more do what you’re passionate about but presumably, we love those things about which we’re passionate. And, yet, after the words leave my mouth I am always wondering whether that advice is too cliche and frankly, a bit naive. I was reading a recent blog post at Pragmatic Capitalism that talked about this very subject and debunked this notion. As I thought more about what Cullen Roche said, I think he was right in many ways. The reality is that we live in a capitalist society in which rewards accrue to those who provide value to others. If we don’t add value then our services will not be needed or provided by others who can deliver more value. It’s a harsh reality but as my father in law likes to say, “There is the Should World and there is the Is World” and it’s better to operate in the “Is World”.
What Does It Mean To Be Indispensable?
Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman said that people often mistake memory for experience. We have two selves: our experiencing self and our remembering self. This is important in terms of how this may lead one to tell people to do what they love based on their memory but might say something different as a result of their experience.The experiencing our experiencing self and our remembering self. This is important in terms of how this may lead one to tell people to do what they love based on their memory but might say something different as a result of their experience.The experiencing self-lives in the present while the remembering self is all about the stories our experiences have created. The critical components of the stories are the changes that take place, the significant moments, and the ending. Kahneman uses an example of someone listening to beautiful classical music and the first 20 minutes are glorious until a loud noise ruins the experience. Kahneman would say that the noise had ruined the memory only because the individual still greatly enjoyed the first 20 minutes, but the contrast and change were so dramatic and disrupting that the memory was now polluted. The memory of the noise made him dislike the memory. The remembering self-helps us make future decisions and is heavily influenced by how satisfied someone is about their life while the experiencing self is more about how happy the experience is.
The point of all that is that I think people, especially successful people, are often burdened by some of the “is this as good as it gets?” mentality when giving advice to do what you love versus what adds a lot of value. They have worked really hard, fought the battles, achieved great financial success, and yet they are often times still not very fulfilled. They then believe that the lack of fulfillment is because they didn’t do what they loved. Yet, maybe they really did love what they did but their remembering selves highlight the negative side of it because not much has changed, the next dollar earned becomes less valuable, or they see other people supposedly doing more fulfilling things. It is also difficult to know if doing something else in which less value was created for others (and financial rewards) would have truly made the experiencing self-happier.
So what is some great graduation advice? The best I’ve heard is from a family friend’s son who gave the student address at his high school graduation a number of years ago. What did he say? Be indispensable! Plain and simple. Create more value than others. A great amplification of this came from Elon Musk’s ex-wife when asked by someone if they would become a billionaire if they were determined and did all the work that was required.
She answered no and expanded upon it as follows:
You’re determined. So what? You haven’t been racing naked through shark-infested waters. she writes.
“Will you be just as determined when you wash up on some deserted island, disoriented and bloody and ragged and beaten and staring into the horizon with no sign of rescue?”
She then offers some advice:
“Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs. Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally). Then develop that potential. Choose one thing and become a master of it. Choose a second thing and become a master of that. When you become a master of two worlds (say, engineering and business), you can bring them together in a way that will a) introduce hot ideas to each other, so they can have idea sex and make idea babies that no one has seen before and b) create a competitive advantage because you can move between worlds, speak both languages, connect the tribes, mash the elements to spark fresh creative insight until you wake up with the epiphany that changes your life.
The world doesn’t throw a billion dollars at a person because the person wants it or works so hard they feel they deserve it. (The world does not care what you want or deserve.) The world gives you money in exchange for something it perceives to be of equal or greater value: something that transforms an aspect of the culture, reworks a familiar story or introduces a new one, alters the way people think about the category and make use of it in daily life. There is no roadmap, no blueprint for this; a lot of people will give you a lot of advice, and most of it will be bad, and a lot of it will be good and sound but you’ll have to figure out how it doesn’t apply to you because you’re coming from an unexpected angle. And you’ll be doing it alone, until you develop the charisma and credibility to attract the talent you need to come with you.
Have courage. (You will need it.)
And good luck. (You’ll need that too.)”
Over to You:
Here’s a challenge: For the next couple of weeks look at all of your interactions and ask how can I create the most value versus focusing on doing what you think you love. Be Indispensable!