#2: Why You Need to Make Yourself Indispensable

Hull of the Titanic

Image by JoelK75

When the Titanic was going down, who were the first people into the lifeboats?

Famously, it was the women and children. But not so famously, there must also have been room for the sailors who knew how to pilot the boats. It’s a brutal fact of survival that if you have skills that are essential for the group, then the group will give you preferential treatment.

I had a taste of this in my first job, when things were looking bleak for the publishing firm I worked for. After months of uncertainty and gloomy speculation, the management called us all together and announced that our department was to fold and 80% of the staff were to be made redundant.

I was one of the few workers kept on, not because I was the brightest or the best, but because I was managing one of the final projects to be completed. No one else knew the project as well as I did, and I was the one the client was used to dealing with, so for a little while longer, I was indispensable. (Once the contract was signed off, of course, I was surplus to requirements and shown the door.)

A few years later, I had an opportunity to deliver some business training for a large telecoms company, as an associate of a small consulting firm. I enjoyed the work and it paid handsomely. I saw the lights go on for the people in the seminar room, and I realised we were delivering a lot of value. After a couple of assignments, I could have stayed in my comfort zone. I could have waited for the consultants to send me more work, turned up on time, kept my nose clean and done what was asked of me.

But I saw an opportunity and resolved to make myself indispensable to the firm. I started asking questions, offering to help, learning as much about the business as I could. Within a couple of years I was made a partner in the firm. It was my first big professional success. And the first time I had resolved to make myself indispensable. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The current economic crisis has made it uncomfortably clear to many of us whether or not we are disposable. This can be a rude awakening. But it’s also an opportunity to reassess your career goals, and start focusing on making yourself truly indispensable — the one person no one around you would dream of getting rid of. Because that’s the only job security you’ll ever have.

In last week’s lesson, we took your own creative passions as the starting point for your career goals. Now we’re going to flip things round and look at the hard-nosed economic argument for following your creative dreams.

Make Yourself a Linchpin

Closeup of wagon wheel showing linchpin

Image by dcbprime

I’ve taken my cue for this lesson from the subtitle of Seth Godin’s book Linchpin:

Are You Indispensable?

A linchpin is the little pin that holds the wheel onto the axle of a wagon. It’s not much to look at, but take it away and the whole thing falls apart. Every organisation has one or more linchpins – Seth’s term for the people who are essential to keep the show on the road. Make yourself a linchpin, and you’ll never want for work.

Linchpin came out in 2010 but it’s already the number one career guide I’m recommending to my clients. In it, Seth describes “The New World of Work” in which people are no longer rewarded for playing it safe and doing as they are told by the boss:

the problem is that the bureaucrats, note takers, literalists, manual readers, TGIF labourers, map followers, and fearful employees are in pain. In pain because they are overlooked, underpaid, laid off, and stressed out.

(Linchpin by Seth Godin, p.7)

Seth’s argument is very similar to the one I made right at the beginning of the Lateral Action blog: abundance, automation and the rise of economic powerhouses in Asia mean that in many rich countries, there is less and less job security for ‘white collar’ workers. Because efficiency and productivity can now be sourced cheaply elsewhere, creativity is economic priority number one — for individuals as well as companies.

If your company is more innovative than the competition, you gain an advantage in the marketplace. And if you are a source of creative ideas and solutions at work, you can become a linchpin.

Linchpin is written primarily with employees in mind, but the concept of a linchpin applies whether you’re in a job, working for yourself or running your own business. You can be indispensable to your boss, to your clients, your customers, or even to a global audience of hundreds of thousands (like Seth).

Four Kinds of Linchpin

Here are four ways you can become a linchpin in the creative economy. (There are other ways, of course.)

1. The Star Employee

As a star employee you not only excel at your own job description, you look above and beyond your immediate responsibilities, building relationships, anticipating problems and bringing solutions to the table. Get good at this, and the biggest obstacles to your success are likely to be the petty jealousies and political rivalries of people who are less interested in delivering results than you are. (We’ll cover what to do about them later in this course.)

2. The Indispensable Collaborator

In this scenario you are a freelancer, consultant or private contractor who delivers way more than work for hire. You have deep knowledge of the industry you work in and are very well networked, so that you always create more value than is specified in the brief. This means you’re first on the list whenever there’s a juicy assignment up for grabs — and you’re so busy that clients beat a path to your door and compete to get on your schedule.

3. The Galvanising Entrepreneur

The word ‘entrepreneur’ means to undertake or instigate something. As an entrepreneur you’re the person who suggests a new project or business and does what it takes to make it happen. You take action and inspire others to get on board and do their best. Do this often enough and you become a magnet for new business opportunities, and an influencer who can have a huge impact on the people around you.

4. The Rockstar

Also known as a thought leader or guru. After years of delivering outstanding results as an employee, collaborator and/or entrepreneur, your reputation precedes you. People look to you for leadership — when you speak, they listen; when you write, they read; when you recommend, they act. At this stage, you’re less concerned with your own status and rewards than with making a difference to the world and leaving it a better place than you found it.

The Creative Economy Demands Artists

Seth’s other name for the indispensable worker is an artist.

You must become indispensable to thrive in the new economy. The best ways to do that are to be remarkable, insightful, an artist, someone bearing gifts. To lead. The worst way is to conform and become a cog in a giant system.

(Linchpin by Seth Godin, p.174)

Seth has attracted controversy in some quarters for extending the term ‘artist’ to cover those in ‘non-artistic’ professions. (See my article Can Anyone Be an Artist?) Personally I don’t have a problem distinguishing between the ‘artist’ who pursues an artistic vocation, and the ‘artist’ who brings artistry, passion and generosity to another field.

But whatever you think of Seth’s use of the word, the critical point is that the rise of the creative economy means that those who can think and act creatively at a high level now have a big advantage over those who are more comfortable with rules and processes.

As you’ve signed up for this course, I’m guessing this will be welcome news. You’ve always seen yourself as an artist, you’ve always inclined towards following your heart and your creative passion. So maybe it feels as though — at last — the outside world is catching up, and giving you a chance to shine.

The rest of this course is designed to help you make the most of this opportunity. You’ve doubtless noticed that there’s a lot more to it than writing your poems, making sweet music or painting a masterpiece and waiting for the world to beat a path to your door. So the next few lessons will show you some ways to develop your creative talent, then we’ll move on to the professional skills you’ll need to get your work out there and make an impact.

Resources

Icon - GlobeWritten by me, unless otherwise stated

Why Creativity Is Economic Priority Number One

The Rise of the Creative Economy

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Insubordinate by Seth Godin — free ebook with fascinating vignettes of some of the real-life linchpins Seth has worked with in his career.

Becoming a Linchpin – a free podcast and worksheet I created with fellow coach Cynthia Morris.

Can Anyone Be an Artist?

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Dan Pink – covers some of the same ground as Linchpin, explaining why creativity is now in hot demand in the ‘conceptual age’, and the six core ‘right-brain’ skills that are critical for success.

T-Shaped Creativity by David Armano. Great description of the need for breadth as well as depth of knowledge and skills. See also his illustration of T-Shaped Creativity.

Is It Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? – my take on T-shaped creativity.

Tips for Creative Success from Pixar by Garr Reynolds – You don’t get to be Dean of Pixar University without being a linchpin. Note how closely Randy Nelson’s “Aptitudes for success in a creative world” tally with the qualities of a linchpin outlined in the worksheet.

Tune in Next Week …

… When we’ll start a series of lessons to help you develop your creative talent and produce truly exceptional work.


This is part 2 of The Creative Pathfinder, an in-depth free course about how to succeed as a creative professional. If you landed on this page from elsewhere, you can learn more about the course and sign up here.