Importance = Indispensability

What it really means to say someone or something is 'important'

What does it mean to say ‘this is important’? That this thing, or this person is important?

I mean an answer to the question without reference to any authority.

Important not because I said so, not because you said so, not because some xyz person said so, not because it’s written in some book – which is after all the same as ‘someone said (or wrote) so’.

Nor because someone attributes its importance to some deity, or to some law or rule, whether religious or social. All of these ultimately come down to the same thing – ‘because someone said so’.

I doubt there’s a scientific answer.

Science only tries to answer what is or will be – observations about the reality of the world.

To impart any importance to the observations is something humans choose to do.

Existence Precedes Importance

The claim that existence precedes essence is the claim that there is no predefined, objective meaning to existence.

You exist first, only then can you create any meaning, if you so choose to – no predefined, God-given meaning lies waiting for you before you enter the world.

Just so is the claim that existence precedes importance.

In a world where creatures didn’t exist, nothing would be important, because there wouldn’t be anyone for it to be important to.

You exist first, only then can you impart importance, if you so choose to – no predefined, God-given importance lies waiting for you before you enter the world.

So it’s fallacious to say that some things – like health or peace or family are important and other things, like fame or wealth aren’t – because importance isn’t preordained; it isn’t a diktat applying universally.

People can decide for themselves what are their matters of consequence.

Assuming that I decide there are things that are important, the question remains – what do I really mean when I say ‘this is important’?

For that, you need to see the meaning of and the idea behind the word important.


It’s easy enough to say that what’s important to you is what you value, but that answers nothing.

It only replaces one magic word, important, with another magic word, value.

What does it mean then, to value something, to consider it important, to think it matters?

When I look back on how I use the word ‘important’ without consciously thinking about it, I suspect that the idea of importance draws from indispensability.

It’s a hypothesis, one I can’t prove. Simply a claim that I can put forth.

The closest approximation I can arrive at to the question of what ‘importance’ means is in terms of indispensability.

A caveat first – nothing is truly indispensable.

At its apogee, in its truest sense, indispensable means ‘something it is not possible to be without’.

And yet, Zindagi migzara – life goes on – even if it’s without you.

When you see that, you see that nothing is truly, absolutely indispensable.

It’s easy enough for me to say my arm is indispensable, and believe it.

But it’s not.

I myself am not indispensable; were I to drop dead at this moment, nothing would be lost, everything would go on much the same.

Zindagi migzara.

How much more dispensable is my arm then?

At best I can make a claim of indispensability with myself as my frame of reference; modify my statement to say my arm is indispensable to me.

And yet, that isn’t true either.

Were I to lose an arm or leg, it would suck for sure, but it wouldn’t kill me.

To take it literally then, nothing is indispensable – in an absolute sense, not confining myself to my own selfish frame of reference.

Even were I to selfishly restrict my statement to myself as a frame of reference, only what I could not stay alive without (that’s ‘something it is not possible to be without’) would really be indispensable to me.

In absolute terms, though, no longer restricting to my own frame of reference, nothing is really ‘indispensable’.

But that doesn’t mean we need to abandon the idea of indispensability.

You can still think in terms of degrees of indispensability.

Even if it’s not essential, the question to ask is – how hard would it be to go without this?

The harder it is, the higher the degree of indispensability.

And I think that degree of indispensability is the idea of importance, at least importance in its truest sense, not the importance we create by authority.

An eye or a limb is important then, not because someone says so, but because it’s much harder to function without them – not impossible, but significantly harder than it is with them.

It’s interesting that the idea of indispensability subsumes the idea of irreplaceability.

I’d initially believed that importance correlates with irreplaceability before I thought of indispensability. That was perhaps because something easily replaceable is going to be less indispensable.

Indispensability subsumes irreplacability.

Something easily replaceable is bound to be dispensable (you can get another), and something indispensable is bound to be irreplaceable; it wouldn’t be indispensable if you could get another easily.

But something irreplaceable is not necessarily indispensable – an irreplaceable thing can after all, be useless, which is the same as saying that something dispensable could be irreplaceable.

So replaceability implies dispensability while dispensability doesn’t imply replaceability.

And indispensability implies irreplaceability while irreplaceability doesn’t imply indispensability.


The most important person in any organization isn’t the one who’s the highest in the hierarchy; it’s the one who’s the most indispensable, the one hardest to replace.

Which means the one without whom the organization will find it toughest to get along.

Tough meaning perhaps the organization now without him is significantly different (worse off) than it was with him; the one for whom this delta is highest is the most important.

Or, if they do get back to where they were, a lot of effort, time and money was needed – and the higher this cost, the more important that person was.

I imagine in an uncomfortably large percentage of organizations, the seniority of members may well have little to do with how important they truly are for the organization.


It’s just the same for people and relationships as it is with organizations.

The most important people are the most indispensable, the hardest to replace – the ones without whom you find your life is significantly worse in some aspect than it used to be.

And here too, perhaps even more uncomfortably – it isn’t necessary the ‘closeness’ of relations – measured by social or biological ties – has anything to do with importance.

Just because you were born to someone, or someone happens to be your sibling or your cousin doesn’t imply that that’s the most important – read indispensable – relationship.

Positive Importance

That is the idea of negative importance.

Meaning how tough or bad life would be without something – the tougher and worse, the more important the thing.

But there’s a positive importance too.

What about the concepts and tools that haven’t been created yet?

The humans who lived without cars, phones would have no metric to assess their importance, because they lived their lives without them.

They wouldn’t have an idea of how tough life would be without cars / phones because that was the only life they ever knew – such a life would be normal to them, not tough.

It’s not possible to say how much harder your life would be without something you’ve never used.

The positive side of importance then is how much will your life improve by this?

It’s the same question, but prior.

Once you’ve used something a while, once it becomes part of your daily life, you can answer how indispensable it is.

But before that time, you can only guess how much your life will improve.

Which is to say that, the test of any new idea or product is not (yet) how hard it is to go without it, but how much easier it will make things – a question that, once it’s been adopted, soon becomes how hard it is to now go without it.

Importance, and value, both then imply indispensability, something you find it hard to do without – which relates to the idea of pain, of caring enough about something that not doing it is difficult.

This explanation of importance – both positive and negative – makes me happy, because it comes down to utility, to usefulness – and takes you away from artificiality, status, power, and the fake games humans tend to create – none of which make anyone’s lives better, except perhaps in some delusional way their own.