A Breath of Fresh Air

I believe that the most important things in life should be able to exist without me.

I just returned from vacation. I was totally disconnected, including four days with no access to anything digital (hard to do when you are on a boat off the coast of Thailand). I didn’t think about work, wasn’t concerned about a pile of briefing notes, or fretting over pending projects. And while I knew that there might be hundreds of emails awaiting me, I chose not to worry.

You could argue as a former public servant without too much “real” work coming my way it would be easy to not worry about briefing notes. I did mull over why I left the public service – the one place I always wanted to be. But apart from a few moments of weakness, I lived in the moment and reveled in the experience of being 12 time zones away.

However, even while I was a public servant I took my vacation time seriously and made every effort to let go. In every job I have ever had, my aim has been to make my position redundant and ensure that everyone in the organization was be able to step into my shoes. I would like to believe what I did was important and helped, but I didn’t want to be irreplaceable, because then I wouldn’t be able to go on vacation.

And becoming irreplaceable is bad for the institution. To be sustainable and relevant the public service has to be refreshed with new ideas, new tools, new techniques, and new people. It has to continue to exist without every one of us.

The public service is like a large house, with many rooms and exciting things happening in all of them – a buffet of activities and opportunities to choose from. But if the windows and doors are all closed, the air gets stale. If there are no new people to join the party, people get tired and bored; they need new energy and different ideas.

It is hard to accept that you are replaceable, because some would equate replaceable with unimportant. But your work is important; in fact, your work is too important, and that is why others need to be empowered to step in should you be unable to come into work for a day, a week, a month, or ever again.

There are others who are just as talented and just as passionate as each of us. These people can step up and do what you do. They might do it differently – but they are doing it because they believe in the cause too. Giving them an opportunity is like opening a window; they are the breeze filling the room.

Taking time off, empowering others to fill in while we are away, and really disengaging for a while also refreshes us. When we return we are more committed, have more energy, and we become the breeze too.

I was replaced. Someone else is doing the job I used to do and I am sure she is doing an incredible job. Sometimes it is hard to realize how easily someone stepped in and took over where I left off; it really is an exercise in humility and trust. There are moments where I wonder if I did the right thing, and it is often hard to find self-worth when I was so easily replaced. But by being replaceable and trusting, I am now freer than I have ever been. I can take on new challenges, empower others to step up to the plate, and encourage them to replace me in whatever I do next.

When we trust others to step in and help us, we can find real freedom. We throw the doors of the house open and everyone can breathe the fresh air.

This is my final regular post for CGE. I know others will continue to write and inspire. I am dedicating this to RP – thank you for replacing me.


Tabatha Soltay Tabatha Soltay: Agent of Chaos, General Do’er, innovator, and networker. Tabatha has a Master’s in Tree-Hugging from the University of Oxford, a minor in life, and applied experience in process design and facilitation. Tabatha has recently left the public service, but continues to share and apply what she has learned from various experiences, helping people become collaborative and creative one project at a time. While not plotting and scheming to help others, she travels and bakes. You can reach her on Twitter @tabtalks.

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