Mickey in a black T-shirt being flushed down a toilet labeled "Laid Off" while a hand-drawn man in a suit smiles smugly and waves dismissively.

Be Irreplaceable

December 31st of last year, I got my walking papers. I am, for the first time in more than two decades—and over ten and a half years in internet advertising—unemployed. And for the first time ever: laid off.

It reminded me of an experience I had about twenty years ago, where the owner of the company I worked for at the time told me that anyone could be replaced—that I was replaceable.

It was an awful feeling, and it colored the remainder of my time there, always hanging in the back of my mind, sapping my productivity, eroding my motivation. I’m replaceable. I’m…unnecessary.

Of course, the two terms “replaceable” and “necessary” are not equivalent, but when someone you respect tells you, explicitly, the company does not need you and will swap in another cog as soon as you’re gone…then you may well start to think of yourself as unnecessary. Unimportant. Extraneous.

Of course, it is absolutely true: When you’re employed by someone else, you are almost certainly not doing things that cannot be done by someone else, no matter how capable you are. The rarer your skills, the the higher the wages you can command and smaller the pool of replacements there are, but there are vanishingly few people who are so incredibly skilled that their job cannot be done by someone else. (And we probably all know their names.)

That’s not even a terrible thing, intellectually. If tragedy occurs, it’s good that someone else can step and fill essential roles in our society. It’s just that making that an explicit statement about someone’s employment is not how to make them feel valued, important, and inspired to give it their all.

It’s a funny thing about working for someone else: It’s sold to us as though it’s the “safe” option.

Starting a business entails risk: You have to find prospective customers, keep clients happy, ensure you have products, sales, make sure your customer service treats people like royalty to ensure that they keep returning to you—and all of these are difficult, and each requires its own set of skills and capabilities. Initially, an entrepreneur does everything, wears every hat.

Eventually, if you have any success, you may be able to hire people to take on some of those positions, but the entrepreneur is always left with the most difficult jobs, the hardest challenges, the things that they either cannot afford to pay anyone else to do—or that there is literally no one else who could do them. And the people you do hire need to be trained and paid on time—they’re not willing to put their light bill on a credit card or let their mortgage payment float a month…or two, when invoices are late (or absent). Plus, there’s paperwork: I-9, W-2, Social Security, insurance. It unlocks more work—at least up front.

50% of new businesses fail within the first year. 90% fail within five years. Starting, owning, and running a business is tough and requires Herculean effort for limited possibility of a real payout. The best most can hope for is a now kind of job that has even longer hours, and there’s no such thing as vacation time.

Everywhere, risk. It’s only crazy people who start this, and only lucky ones who find any success with it.


50% and 90% failure rates sound pretty damn awful. Just go to college, get a job, draw a regular paycheck, and let those crazy lucky schmucks worry about all that nonsense.

But…no one talks about the pink slips when they do that math about risk…do they?

It puts me in mind of a ship: You can be a deckhand—hoisting sails, coiling ropes, swabbing decks—placing the entirety of your future and well-being in the hands of the captain, entrusting him to keep you and the other sailors safe and paid, with your three squares and tot of rum each day. You do your duty, while he deals with all the risk.

Or…you could be the captain. Secure the funds or promises necessary to acquire the ship; negotiate the contracts for cargo or passage, plot the ports of call, ensure your crew is well-trained, efficient, and productive—and rally them to greater effort when you must weather a storm. Guide them and your vessel through your journeys to adventure and riches.

You…can…hope another will steer you right, your own vision limited to just the tasks between your hands. Or. You can helm the ship yourself, see out to the horizon at what is to come—and to anticipate what is beyond it.

One of those is definitely harder, but both…entail risk. That’s the dirty little secret.

For my part, I’m now a…captain…without a ship. Well, within my sailing metaphor, I “captain” a one-man dinghy—a rowboat—with just a few supplies tucked away and no land in sight.

But now…I’m up at 5 or 6 every morning—no alarm clock. And in a 100-year-old house in New Hampshire in mid-winter…getting out of bed at 5am is no joke. I was wearing a wool beanie and flannel as I wrote the script for this video on a dark February morning, the pre-dawn lighting the horizon beautifully. And I’m…trying to see beyond it.

I haven’t been this excited, this exhilarated—this terrified—in ages.

And I’m…happy.

So, what’s it to be for you? Hope…or Helm?

Watch the video:

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