You’re not indispensable (except when you are)

When Jesse Noller’s essay explaining why he had essentially left his software community made it to the top of Hacker News, I read it with great interest.

Noller was one of the pillars of the community, but by pouring all his time and energy into the community, he neglected his marriage and family, and ultimately lost both of them.

Here’s a passage that really struck home for me:

“You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless. 

I stole time from my family, from work, from everything. I stole it from me, I gave time, emotion and empathy freely to anything and everyone. 

My values – what I should have been caring about – were, putting it bluntly, completely and totally fucked.

Online communities are an interesting animal; they’ve given me so much, and I’ve made friends all over the world. It’s opened career doors and more for me, it’s supported me when I’m or my family was down. 

However, “community” is not the gift that keeps on giving, it is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. If you don’t set clear and absolute boundaries, it will drain you dry and move on. 

I see the warning signs that were posted all over now, looking back. A good friend and mentor warned me, Dusty, my now ex-wife was telling me. The fact I had a rough relationship with my oldest daughter was telling me. All the signs were there. 

Take, take, take, give, give, give – for what? To change the world? Can a programming community change the world? Can it hug you when you’re sitting alone at night on the couch staring at a black TV? The friends you make, if you can touch them, can. 

Otherwise, No. 

Will it raise your daughters or be there for your wife? 


That was my job; and I bombed.”

When I was a young employee of D. E. Shaw, I never took any vacation time, despite having an unlimited vacation policy.  I always felt I was too “indispensable” to be away from the office.

Of course, when I got the chicken pox, and was quarantined at home for two weeks (several of my co-workers hadn’t had the disease, and during the Dark Ages, there was no chicken pox vaccine), the company somehow managed anyway.

It is very rare that you’re truly indispensable at work, even if you’re a founder CEO.  If you are, you’ve done a piss-poor job of building your management team.

In contrast, you truly are indispensable at home.  No number of nannies, cleaners, tutors, and other helpers can substitute for having a husband, a wife, a father, or a mother present.

There is a famous quote that most of you have heard that seems appropriate here.  It was spoken by Brian Dyson as part of a graduation speech at Georgia Tech in 1991:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air. 

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same.”

You’re not indispensable.  Except when you are.

7 thoughts on “You’re not indispensable (except when you are)

  1. The "five balls in the air" analogy is certainly beautiful, Chris, and a good representation of the dynamics one must face when trying to achieve the so sought after life-work balance. But let me offer an "exception to the rule" scenario while staying faithful to one of the main themes of your blog: startups.

    In an older post from you this year, you mention that "the values that actually shape a culture have both upside and downside" and I wholeheartedly agree with it. Considering that there is no great opportunities without risk, it is fair to say that if someone is in the early stages of his/her startup (and I mean startup in the classic sense, aka a "swinging for the fences" startup) the work ball mentioned in the analogy is actually made of glass too. If it drops — and we know that the gravitational forces acting against startups are brutal, it *will* break.

    So in these rare but possible scenarios where all balls are made of glass it is important to understand the trade-offs of the situation since it is impossible to avoid them. You soon will be forced to make a decision in which ball to focus your attention on and if you are in the startup game as a founder you have already made that choice.

    I don't know much of Jesse Noller's situation so I'm not commenting specifically on it. The general point is that the trade-offs that matter are often tough, but there is nothing inherently wrong in reserving a period of your life to focus mostly on work as long as everybody you care about understand and accept the risks and your family is supportive of your decision.

    The family part is really key here: if they support your decision it will not only help you protect your relationship with them during your adventure but also improve the chances that you stay strong through it and get the goal you want.

  2. Rudi,

    I agree that things are even harder for founders. And I think that your solution of making tradeoffs consciously, and with the support of one's family, is a good solution. Far too often, the family isn't given a chance to participate in the decision-making process.

  3. Rian

    I gave up spending time with my family during residency. I took that risk and traded it for a much greater future. I now enjoy helping others while also spending copious amounts of quality time with my family. The lesson here is quite obvious. Life is made up of choices. You do what fits you. I dislike all these graduation speeches that try to make sweeping and sound-bitey aphorisms in the name of advice. Personalized medicine is winning because of the simple fact that we all are individuals who have unique circumstances, desires, and risk to reward profiles.

  4. “You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless.

    It’s all a balance and as other comments have voiced out it’s about trade offs. You’ll get signs when you’re off balance, it just depends if you want to listen to them. I’ve had those signs for all 4; family, health, friends and spirit. Really jolts you back to life / awareness.

    Love the 5 balls. Work, as an entrepreneur has and is a fun wild ride and always bounces back.

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