The "Hit By a Bus" Rule

Published on July 30th, 2019

Buying a life insurance policy is a sobering experience. You get to answer uncomfortable questions like "How many years would you like them to live at your current lifestyle without you?" Of course, we'd love the answer to be forever, but that is hardly a realistic response. So you do your best to try and not feel ashamed or like an asshole asking whether or not five years would be enough. Thankfully, current average life expectancies are more than double my current age. I also lead a reasonably active lifestyle, so I pray the policy is never needed.

Still, averages are not actualities. We owe it to those that depend on us to at least consider and have a plan for these potential outcomes. The Daily Stoic sells a Memento Mori coin, which translates to "remember that you will die." Yesterday, this lesson was all too real. A friend of a friend was tragically shot and killed, leaving behind a family. I was right in the middle of writing this article when I heard, which meant it was even harder to answer the questions posed by the insurance salesman. How exactly would they get by without me? It's a hard, hard question to answer without a plan.

No amount of health and preparation can prevent freak accidents or chance events from occurring. I may live seven more decades or die tomorrow. And while the odds may be heavily weighted in our favor to live out a full life, it's crucial to have a plan B.

The same is very true for business.

In fact, it's even more important to have a plan B for every single employee in the company (including the owners). As of 2016, the average person will have 4 jobs by age 32. In some industries (notably tech startups) and in some areas of the country (notably Silicon Valley), a person may change jobs every 12-18 months. Unfortunately, many teams, leaders, colleagues, and companies are so hyper-focused on the needs of today that they have no plans for a full team changeover every two years. They ignore the uncomfortable questions like, "How will this team or department continue if no one else can perform his or her functions?" The answer could be as benign as others picking up the slack, or it could be fatal. What happens if they have passwords that no one else knows about, and you are fully locked out of mission-critical systems?

This is where I started living by the hit-by-a-bus-rule. Here is a personal truth of mine: being indispensable is great, but being irreplaceable is not. This is akin to being a victim of your own success. You become the only person that can perform functions X, Y, or Z because that's the easy default. And because something that takes you 5 minutes may require 5 hours to document and delegate, the trade-off never seems worth it. However, the scales invert when that person is no longer available, and it takes someone else five days to figure it out themselves.

The hit-by-a-bus rule applies to more than just the dev team. Brad Feld goes as far as saying that a company needs to have a backup for every single senior leader, even the CEO. This seems extreme but imagine a ship losing its captain or a play losing its star performer. There is always a 2nd mate or understudy trained to take the helm or take the stage should the worst happen.

The hit-by-a-bus rule is a constant reminder that life is fickle, and unexpected shit happens. I highly encourage you to revisit this every time you discover a function in your company, team, or family that can only be done by one person.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.