Advice From My Dad Part 2: Make Yourself Irreplaceable

Like father, like son

We all get career advice from our parents, and like it or not, that advice can become an influence on our career choices later in life. This is of course all well and good if the advice is sound, but oftentimes that’s not the case. In fact, my observations from working with university students suggest that much of the parental career advice out there is actually remarkably bad.

Okay, maybe that’s being a bit harsh. I don’t mean to imply that well-meaning parents are effectively sabotaging their offspring’s careers. For most parents, that’s as far from what they’re trying to do as possible. I guess my point is that good intentions don’t necessarily equate to sound career advice. At the very least, the youth’s interpretation of such advice might look quite a bit different than what was intended (cue the student who feels relentlessly pressured to study things they have no interest in (e.g. medicine/business/law) because they feel pressured to “succeed”).

Probably the biggest piece of career advice I ever got from my dad (aside from the ‘don’t be a lawyer’ talk) was to always go above and beyond an employer’s expectations, even to the point of sacrificing other parts of your life. “Make yourself irreplaceable,” he would say, regaling stories of his own young employment at a car dealership. “Take the shifts that nobody else wants, work extra hours whenever possible, be the guy that your boss knows they can always count on” (yes, that was an intentional use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. More on that next week).

At the age when I was receiving this advice most frequently, I was working part-time as a dishwasher at a popular chain restaurant. I always smiled and nodded when I was getting the career advice talk, but I usually thought to myself that dad’s values must have been different from my own after the fact.  I didn’t want to give up my precious Friday and Saturday nights working the shifts nobody else wanted – I wanted to hang out with my friends. On a more fundamental level, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sacrificing the other parts of my life just so I could show an employer how dedicated I was – it sounded unbalanced, and potentially very unhealthy in the long-term (I still believe this). So, while I knew that this way of thinking helped my dad in his own career, I essentially believed it was bad advice.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before I found that I was actually living my dad’s advice – it just wasn’t in the way I thought he originally meant it. My dad’s advice was to make yourself irreplaceable. In other words, create a scenario in which an employer would be losing something so important if they let you go, that under normal and reasonable circumstances, they won’t.

My original interpretation of that advice was that I had to work extra long hours and sacrifice other parts of my life in order to show my value. As it turns out, that’s not the only way to make yourself important.

That brings me to yesterday. Like most days, I was talking to a student about his work search. He was looking for entry-level positions, and because of his unique area of study (interactive arts and technology) was concerned that he would end up doing work quite a bit different from the stuff he really wanted to do, which was design.

This got me thinking about my own career, and my current role as a career advisor. I knew going into the job that I would be working closely with students, facilitating workshops, and various other duties that could be reasonably expected. Here’s the thing: while I’d like to believe that I do a pretty good – maybe even a great –  job at that kind of stuff, it doesn’t make me irreplaceable. Any other career advisor could come along and do just as satisfactory a job at those things if I left.

But around the same time that I started, the centre was getting into this little thing called social media. They had a defunct blog with a questionable number of readers that hadn’t seen fresh content in months, and a brand new Twitter and Facebook account set up within months of me starting (not to mention a stretched-thin marketing and communications team that didn’t exactly need another set of social media responsibilities).

So I started writing on the blog. Didn’t ask anyone, just did it. A short time later, I found myself running the social media accounts too. We’ve had great success with all of the above, and now that the centre has developed something of a reliance on these technologies, I’m providing something unique that wouldn’t be so easily replaced if I were to leave.

In my story, this was all incidental. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. The wonderful thing about both modern jobs and modern job seekers is that there’s so much complexity – there’s no job that’s all about doing only one thing really well, just as there’s no job seeker who can only do one thing really well. Every student I talk to has a diverse range of talents and skills, and it’s often surprising how those can play out in a work environment.

All you have to do is think outside the job description. If you’re able to do that, while doing the traditional parts of your job really well, it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re depending on you to fulfill a need they didn’t even know existed before you came along. And that’s a good feeling to have.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.