I think one of the rites of your mid-40s is assessing what you have accomplished relative to what your young self thought you were going to accomplish — and feeling blue about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my interchangeability. That is, the notion that in the vast majority of my own endeavors in life, I have been basically an interchangeable part in a larger system. This is in spite of being a pretty clever engineer, pretty good policy analyst, or even Really Smart Guy. I can’t really point to any professional situation where someone else, similarly trained and skilled, would not have performed the job more or less as I did. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of employment in our world that even if my particular combination of traits is uncommon, most jobs only require only a couple of them.

I’m not saying that we are not each unique, special snowflakes, but that in the vast majority of situations, that uniqueness just isn’t operational. Which is kind of a rough realization. It’s probably best for young folks to avoid realizing this as long as they can.

Of course, there are aspects of life in which even the least accomplished of us is not interchangeable. Obviously, the personal aspects come to mind. My spouse and kids would probably be nonplussed to wake up one day to find me replaced with someone who was “a lot like me.” Though maybe in a week, year, or decade they’d mostly get over it.

Some people transcend interchangeability. Artists and musicians create unique things that nobody else could possible have created. Sometimes scientists discover things that would otherwise have gone undiscovered for a long time. These are things whose profound singularness are easily recognizable, whether or not you know the creator herself. That’s pretty amazing if you think about it. Can anyone do this or is it just for rare talents?

Maybe, part of the secret to a happy second half of life is the acceptance of interchangeability. So what if I’m not leaving a unique mark on the world? Maybe it’s lifts a huge burden to accept that it’s more than enough that your family and friends love you (I have received reliable assurances that mine do) and that has nothing to do with your worldly accomplishments. Or, is that prematurely throwing in the towel on the world?

Or, maybe interchangeability — an assessment of value of self as perceived by the outside world —  is a wholly inappropriate way to consider one’s own life. An alternative approach might be to totally disregard what the world “thinks” and just “be” whatever works for me. The world probably isn’t even real, anyway? Because of my non-liberal arts background, I wasn’t exposed to much philosophy in my education, but in high school I had a teacher who was really big into the existentialists. Didn’t really resonate for me then, but it’s starting to much more these days.


2 thoughts on “Interchangeability”

  1. Dave,

    For me the key lies in the WHERE the interchangeability occurs. You write “someone else, similarly trained and skilled, would not have performed THE JOB (caps by Lee) more or less as I did”. That’s likely true. But who bloody cares. It’s a job. It’s what you do to put provide for your family. Despite what my bosses’ bosses might think my life is not dedicated to building stockholder value, it’s what I do so that in what little time I have left over I can live my real life. It’s a time tax that must be paid (unless you win the birth or powerball lottery). So your premise _might_ be true (and I’ve seen your work. You, sir, are a special snowflake and not as replaceable as you think), but even if it is I contend that it doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t. And I think your frame of reference as an engineer might skew your analysis. If you worked flipping burgers, or digging ditches, or driving a taxi, any other profession that, while honorable, doesn’t require uniqueness in the way engineering or policy analysis might you might reframe the argument – many (most?) people take that as a given and live perfectly happy lives. So go be happy!

    1. Thanks, Lee.

      Yes, you are right, my perspective is perhaps warped by my own ambition, which is at least in part a dynamic of my career and the rhetoric of creativity and world-changyness of Silicon Valley.

      Many people, most, in fact, toil under no illusion that they are working to earn a living, no more, no less.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *