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How to Become Indispensable by Thinking Like a Scientist

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Chemistry experiment

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.

How can you prove yourself wrong?

Too often people think of their career as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They want to justify the degrees on the wall and protect their career capital. Scientists, meanwhile, continually challenge their own ideas and theories. That’s because nothing in science is proven right; it’s simply proven not wrong.

For careerists wanting to prove to employers that they are indispensable, imagine a negative outcome: your institution is about to eliminate your job or the hiring committee is considering another candidate with a better CV. Ask yourself how an employer would try to kill your job or candidacy? Companies often do this to innovate and avoid complacency by taking a sledgehammer to their business plans and asking, “How would our competitors try to kill our company?”

“Progress, whether in science or in life, occurs only through generating negative outcomes, so (try) to rebut rather than confirm (your) beliefs,” said Ozan Varol on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job” podcast, discussing his book “Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life.” “Try this for a week: switch your default from proving yourself right to proving yourself wrong.”

How would you rebuild your department or career?

Astronaut explorer

Whether sending rovers to Mars, like Varol did, or tinkering with gadgets, scientists like to take things apart and rebuild them to see how they work or to improve their design. After thinking about how you would tear everything down, how would you rebuild your career? Better yet, how would your employers rebuild your department if they could?

The coronavirus pandemic may give institutions a reason to follow through with a sledgehammer to their organizational charts and operating procedures, out of necessity or by using the pandemic fallout as cover to make unpopular decisions that are long overdue.


In times of austerity, organizations will likely go through zero-based budgeting, where all expenses must be justified each fiscal period. This is an economic variant of first-principles thinking, an approach that Varol writes about in his book, which requires stripping everything down to unquestionable truths to make better decisions.

Everything will be negotiable. You might dread such a predicament, but as institutions begin to question everything post-pandemic, be ready with an answer -- that is, you as the answer. Think about what skills and traits the institution values and work toward outcomes that can be measured on a CV or a report for your supervisor. Don’t wait until your annual performance review.

As a final thought, scientists will tell you that if a five-millimeter domino started toppling progressively larger dominoes 1.5 times their size, it would take only 29 of them to knock over a domino the size of the Empire State Building. Imagine then what you could do, no matter your stature, if you thought like a scientist, positioned yourself the right way, and brought a new kind of kinetic energy to your work to counteract adversity.

You’d be indispensable.

Scientist in lab

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