Two hard truths to set you free

We think we are more important than we actually are. I mean this in the individual sense. Afterall, our own thoughts are the only ones we can think. Try as you might to, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” the experience will undoubtedly be coloured by your prior thinking and cognitive biases. Why does this matter? Because we get caught up in our inner narratives that tell us our perspective, our work, our contribution is more impactful than someone else’s. This happens quietly and insidiously, creating a sense of self-righteousness that erodes our well-being.

If your self-esteem is related to being right, feeling validated, or having others recognize your accomplishments, be prepared to feel down. If your expectation is that your work will make a difference, something largely out of your control, prepare to feel frustrated. If you can’t understand why others don’t see things your way, perhaps your analytical skills have become blunted by self-importance. This may sound extreme, but as you traverse the regular highs and lows of your week, I think these sentiments will resonate. 

Fortunately, you can free yourself from these perceptual binds by accepting two hard truths.

  1. You are replaceable. 

If I didn’t show up to work, a couple of people might think my unexplained absence was odd. After a day or two, some calls or e-mails would be placed to see what was up. Let’s say I then decided I was done; I wouldn’t go back. The immediate workplace concern would be to take stock of my former responsibilities and ensure that someone else was assigned to cover them. Intermediate to long-term plans would be made to find a lasting replacement. Three months from now, people may briefly recall the strange time when Andrew suddenly left. They would then go about their days. 

Now a real-world example. A teacher has been on staff at a local high school for 30 years. They taught thousands of students over this time. They were part of the fabric and culture of the school. This year, they retired. The staff had a lunch on the last day of school. A couple of colleagues paid a public tribute, shared some stories and bid their farewell. There was pizza. The retiree then walked out of the building for the last time. The administration then hired a new teacher. The remaining staff will file into the school at the start of the next year, their routines entirely unchanged. The incoming students will only know the retiree by their picture on the wall. 

These examples underscore that no matter how seriously you take your work, how much pride you have in the outcome, the world necessarily carries on in your absence. One could view this perspective as negative, deflating. The rational response is not to stop doing things because there is no point, but rather to cease worrying about day-to-day trivial matters and burdening oneself with overinflated self-importance. Accepting your replaceability causes you to evaluate the worth of your own progress, shifting toward a focus on the most meaningful pursuits.

There is a notable exception to the notion of being replaceable. You are not replaceable to your family and closest friends. It is to them, and only them, that your continued relationship matters, because the strength of that relationship is connected to their own well-being.

2. There is no legacy.

There are currently around 7 billion people on the planet. Billions have come before and billions more have yet to exist. The sheer magnitude of humanity makes the probability of your name or work being widely known, at present day, extremely low, let alone being recalled as some form of legacy generations from now. Of course, I recognize that most people don’t strive to become a global name. If notoriety is what you seek, it is likely to be sought or measured on a more local scale. But to what end?

Fame, that is strangers knowing who you are, is no reflection of the value you have created for yourself or anyone else. Fame is most often serendipitous. Value, on the other hand, is generally related to a dedicated pursuit of one thing that others deem to be desirable. Most links of the value chain, however, don’t indicate what happened upstream, or who was responsible for it. People are just happy to capture it. But time and desires change. What once was desired ceases to be so. The work done to generate value was not done in vain, it’s simply no longer as valuable as it once was. 

If your goal is to build something that will result in your being remembered long after you are gone, a legacy, you will most likely fall short. For this, too, is mostly out of your control. As with your replaceability, this should be viewed in a positive light. Why burden yourself with trying to influence the lives of those not yet in existence, when there is so much to be addressed in the present? You risk tying your sense of well-being, achievement, meaning or success to something that you will never experience. Instead, focus on meaningful efforts where you can improve and bring value to the current situation. 

This does not mean that we should not worry about the future state of humanity and the world we live in. The only way to effectively change it for the better, is to be firmly present in the happenings of this moment, where we can continuously do our best to be a force for good. 

By accepting that you are replaceable and that your purpose is not to create a legacy, you will stop prioritizing your time and work to the neglect of what matters most; your family, your friends, and your unique human experience.