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Being Dispensable

Maple tree sculpture
Credit: flickr / pixn8tr

I heard a horrible story the other day – someone had been off work because they were seriously ill, and a week before they returned to work one of their colleagues called all her clients and said she was never coming back.

Shocking, right? Bitchy! Horrifying. Disgusting behavior. Hurtful. The last thing you need. If my friend hadn’t come back and her clients had needed to find someone else… surely that is the last person they would have chosen, right?

You’d hope so. It’s hard to be sure though, and I too have been on the receiving end of something bitchy lately. Disparaging comments behind my back – to my friends! So of course they made their way back to me. And then this person decides that she wants something that I would be in a position to help her with, but instead of suggesting coffee and straightening out these “misunderstandings”… a passive aggressive strategy was employed.

I hate feeling like I’ve been backed into a corner and if I go one way I compromise my values, and if I go the other I get cast as the bad guy. I hate it. And so I debate what my strategy will be, discuss it with a friend, and go for passive aggressive in return (I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only way to deal with a passive aggressive, but I still hate myself for it). But something else happens, and it seems like she’s getting what she wanted and I’m annoyed. And frustrated – because when you could get everything you wanted by being nice why, why, why would someone choose the route of the passive aggressive?

And then – I relax. Good things are happening, and anyway, I’m leaving. And really, I can dislike this person’s strategy, I can question her integrity, but – I have to acknowledge, that if I abstract to a higher level – we have the same goal. I want X to continue when I’m gone and that means someone to keep pushing it along. She is clearly interested enough to be that person – probably resents that I was doing it in the first place. Fine. I’m not going to be on her side here, but nor am I going to obstruct. So it’s likely that she will get what she wants.

Really what it comes down to is that I’m dispensable, and I’m OK with that. I handed over WISE to someone and I know that she’s committed, but she has a different skill set than me, and maybe she’ll come to have a different vision. That’s OK – I can mentor her, I can encourage, I can advise. But now – it’s her call, not mine. I give up control, but that means I get to move on to different projects.

Maggie and I just launched CompSci Woman. We have an initial strategy, we have some ideas, but the long term success of it means that we will be dispensable. We will need other people to help us, and we will welcome that as an opportunity to learn, and grow. We don’t want to build a small, steel and concrete structure that we can have complete control over! We want to build something organic that will grow. That means accepting a certain amount of chaos, it means accepting that the path might diverge from what we intended – it’s a compromise people make in order to be able to move onto the next project, the next adventure.

My manager, a while ago, asked me “how did you come to be you?” – at the time, I wasn’t sure if this was a complement or not. I’ve come to think that it was genuine interest from someone who’s had to learn to be an extrovert. At the time, I answered slightly flippantly, “I don’t know? Two years of boarding school?” – but here is the truth. I am the sum of the people I’ve known, the places I’ve been, and the experiences I’ve had. I have many more people to meet. More places to go. More experiences to have. The freedom of being dispensable allows be to go chasing them.

I think you can apply this to other things too – as a programmer, you can create job security by building something so complex and poorly documented that no-one else can maintain it (here’s how). Or – you can document, explain, write simple-as-possible, beautiful code and create – if not job security – career security through being visible, and awesome and having learned as much as possible along the way. Doing this properly, you become a multiplier – your effectiveness makes other people effective, and you’re responsive to being multiplied by others, as well. Of course, there may be a risk that you become a sequential prototyper – and I’m aware of that for myself – so as much as industrial research appealed to me when I looked for a job one of my criteria was, working somewhere where something I build will be deployed.

I don’t have a goal in mind, I’m not trying to build a solid structure – I’m trying to create a path. This blog is my trail of breadcrumbs, if you will. Disappointments are just obstacles, and so I find an alternative route.

I’m not an expert, rather an explorer. I don’t aim to control, I attempt to instigate. I don’t construct, I assemble and add water.

And then – I move on. Being indispensable is a cage that I don’t want to live in.

Credit: flickr / Stahl und Glas - steel and glass

7 replies on “Being Dispensable”

good post, cate. i like this sentence very much! “I am the sum of the people I’ve known, the places I’ve been, and the experiences I’ve had. I have many more people to meet. More places to go. More experiences to have. The freedom of being dispensable allows be to go chasing them.”

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