How to Become Indispensable by Thinking Like a Scientist

Preface to article shared by Isabella Johnston:

In times of uncertainty, it is vital to hone in on the value you bring to your work and personal relationships. Regardless if you are a server at McDonalds (or insert your favorite drive through restaurant name) to highest position in business, government, and nonprofit; we all have value. Want to know how to step up your game? Think like a scientist - solve problems in your work environment and think about how to solve the problem. Many thanks to Justin Zackal who wrote the article found on Higher Ed. When I am recruiting, I look for people that can take problems off my shoulders.

Many higher education professionals are likely fearing a domino effect caused by the global pandemic. If enrollment, state funding, grants, or endowments all begin to dwindle, that will cause hiring freezes, furloughs, additional burdens on the employed, and fewer opportunities for job seekers. Those dominoes could fall, but instead of waiting for something to happen to you, make something happen for you.

Start another domino effect to become indispensable. There are no failsafe plans to save your job or secure a new job, but even tiny actions now can help topple large career barriers ahead. Even better, you might start a more desirable path you would not have found without employment in peril.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, so you’re not going to follow some step-by-step instructions to be indispensable. If that’s what you prefer, you’re likely bound for a dispensable job following instructions anyway. As Seth Godin, in his book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”, says “Lab assistants do what they’re told. Scientists figure out what to do next.”

To figure out what to do in your career post-pandemic, you have to ask questions like a scientist and become indispensable. Here are a few questions to get you started:

What is the adjacent possible?

What sounds like a concept for setting up dominoes, this term comes from scientific research. First introduced by theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman in 2002, the concept was used by Steven Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” to explain how innovation is found just beyond the cutting edge by making new combinations of existing ideas.

As it relates to becoming indispensable in your career, think about what you can offer the world or at least a single employer that, when combined, improves on the status quo. These contributions that are both rare and valuable are the foundation of the career capital theory, shared by Cal Newport in his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” It’s the opposite of the passion hypothesis, where your job offers you value. Instead of following your passion, follow what others are doing to innovate your field and expand on their work.

“You need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field,” Newport wrote. “This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas.”

What can you contribute to collective intelligence?

One of the lessons from the pandemic is how interconnected people are and how much we rely on collective intelligence to solve problems. Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, provides at least one example in his book about how career-minded computer programmers leveraged the open-source software movement by volunteering their time to build software that’s freely available and modifiable.

Think about your domain’s equivalent to the open-source software movement. If you are an academic, you might argue, “Well, my discipline’s open sources are peer-reviewed journals and it takes a lot of work to get published.” However, you can still build career capital through smaller wins -- or “little bets,” to use a term by author Phil Simon about how innovation comes from experimenting and failing fast.

Serve on committees, host a webinar, share your talents with people inside and outside the academy. Think about how you can contribute to the needs of the world during this pandemic and how your expertise can benefit the health care industry, charities, or other essential businesses.

This is not only where to find the adjacent possible but also where you can build career capital in exchange for your contributions.