Why do we keep worrying about our relevance?

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I think there’s sometimes a big concern with the very “work is virtue” people — and you all probably know a lot of them — that if they stop working, they’ll just shrivel up and die. That happens a lot with coaches; Bear Bryant is an example, and Joe Paterno is another one, although you can argue Joe Paterno had a lot of different stuff on his plate near the end of his life. This is all pretty logical: work provides purpose for a lot of people (even though companies don’t necessarily do a great job thinking about this), and they worry that without that infusion of purpose, all will be lost.

I take a little bit of a different approach to it: like I’ve written a couple of dozen times on this blog, I often feel totally irrelevant at work. I almost never work on projects that I feel like anyone else cares about, and I feel like — in basically every job I’ve ever had — when I approach people with concepts/ideas, they’re always truly focusing on something else. Part of this is my fault, yes. I think I’m a moderately intelligent person, and I could put myself into situations where I work on more relevant, revenue-facing things. Maybe I’m scared. Or maybe I just like doing the small things I do, and trying to establish myself that way, and I shouldn’t even complain or think about stuff like this.

I came across this article on Harvard Business Review called “Stop Worrying About How Much You Matter.” It’s pretty interesting all around, although — as you might expect — a lot of the focus is on people retiring and worrying about how much they matter. That’s not my problem and not probably ever going to be my problem; I’m sure most retirement avenues will have dried up by then, anyway. The rich get richer, baby!

This is a good section:

Still, there is a silver lining to this kind of irrelevancy: freedom.

When your purpose shifts like this, you can do what you want. You can take risks. You can be courageous. You can share ideas that may be unpopular. You can live in a way that feels true and authentic. In other words, when you stop worrying about the impact of what you do, you can be a fuller version of who you are.

I actually agree with this, and I have some examples in my personal life. Right now I send this (kinda) company-wide e-mail on Fridays about analytics and reporting. Probably 2–3 people on the distribution list ever read this thing, so I was able to get a little free about it: fun links (relevant to work, mostly), a few inside jokes, some song lyrics, etc. As a result, more people started reading. Now, if you’re a total work purist, you could read this paragraph and say “Well, the people aren’t reading it for the actual information, they’re reading it for the fun extras.” Yep. You’re right. I’m not arguing that. But in the process, I basically created some freedom for myself, and that maybe exposed a few people to “Hey, here’s this data we track, and we can actually use it to inform business decisions.”

Phrased another way: I’m completely irrelevant, yes. No one is really reading these things. But that irrelevancy has some freedom to it.

Now pause and pivot.

Here’s a broader point, right?

Most people spend their entire working lives chasing relevancy. They want to be seen as the experts, the go-to guys, the thought leaders, the Point-A, whatever the case may be. Most of why work can suck is because your boss is trying to predict threats, and one of the greatest threats to any professional is “OMG, this person could come and make me irrelevant!”

People fear that because it usually correlates with less money or even termination (“You’re not needed anymore”), but in a lot of places, people are worshipping at The Temple of Busy and don’t really even take much time to notice what’s going on around them (for an example of this, consider if you actually know what most of your co-workers do). Between that and the legal challenges to firing someone, a lot of times a role just slides from “This is relevant” to “This isn’t relevant anymore.” It’s that simple and basic.

So rather than viewing that as being struck down by The Man, maybe you should view it as freeing. Heck, now you can kind of go work on what you want to work on (so long as there’s value back to the organization, right?) and maybe eventually get to a place where you slide back towards “relevancy” again.

This is something I need to remember about my own life, though: while I’ve almost always felt irrelevant at work, these things can move in cycles — and being irrelevant is better than working on the “big things” and getting micro-managed within an inch of your life, right?

Here’s a final interesting point from the HBR article that I’ve been trying to practice (with some success!) for about 2–3 years:

When you meet new people, avoid telling them what you do. During the conversation, notice how frequently you are driven to make yourself sound relevant (sharing what you did the other day, where you’re going, how busy you are). Notice the difference between speaking to connect and speaking to make yourself look and feel important.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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