Pick a Niche, Don't Be One: Unbridled Learning
After the time that was once upon the boy, he asked himself "what now?"
SO! Now what...right?
Now (then) I needed a different model. I needed to shed the old belief that "to make it in this world you need an esteemed degree, and a job with advancement opportunities."
So I shed.
It wasn't that difficult of a task to be truthful. The decision came right as I was offered an assistant position for an automotive photographer. I know I used the term "apprenticeship" in part 1 of this story, and I think that's what is was... But let me be clear, it was only an apprenticeship in hindsight, and only from my perspective. I wasn't being formally taught anything, but I was learning loads...and I was being paid.
I was obviously learning some industry and skill specific things, but I was also learning organization, business management, large production estimating and invoicing, cash-flow management, and many other components of creative business.
This exposure whet my appetite for more lateral learning. Nobody was telling me what to focus on, so I began consuming all sorts of stuff. My eye for directly-applicable content began to sharpen. My sense for research heightened and I became highly skilled at "learning while doing".
I had been taught all my life that practice makes perfect, and to study in-advance and in-preparation. The concept itself is fine, but again, the unspoken side-note is a killer: "thou shalt not attempt that which one is not a master of."
Poppycock I say!
Learning and doing simultaneously provides the same benefits of controlled-environment-practice, but it also places pressure and the weight of failure squarely on the practicer's shoulders. But isn't this bad? Why on earth would pressured learning be good, especially with one's job at stake?
I discussed this a bit in "How I've Failed at Stuff, and Why it's Matterful", but the answer is simple: Confidence building and the increase of failure-tolerance.
Another benefit of risking my learning this way was that I discovered where my limits truly are. David Deida likes to describe it as "living at your edge" and that a "superior person" lives at their edge in all things. But to live at your edge, you must first discover where the cliff drops off. In my experience the learning-while-doing process accomplished just this. I know exactly how fast I can learn a skill, from zero knowledge to professional competence, and can be confident walking into foreign-skill territory on a high-paying contract of any sort. Try getting that lesson in college...
At this point you may be wondering, "What does any of this have to do with picking vs. being niches?"
As always, I'm glad you asked...love the questions, keep 'em coming ;-)
Expansive lateral learning, being aware of the lessons that aren't being directly taught, and learning-while-doing are all personal examples of how I've benefited by not being a "niche-skilled person". True, I haven't yet discussed the picking of niches, mainly because I don't need to. You hear it all the time, and you probably already have strategies for just doing that don't you?
So, instead of doing more dead horse beating, let me leave you with a metaphor:
My skills are a fluid. When my skills are funneled, they are poured into the wide mouth (university) and spat out a narrow base into one specific container (career). Personally, I will never live happily if I am forced to pick only one.
Instead, I try operate as though there are no containers and that my skills are poured onto a flat surface and allowed to slosh and span as they please. However, this flat surface is perforated with thousands of tiny holes. Each of these holes represents an industry niche. If I continue to add volume to my skilliquid (lateral learning), the span of my slosh will widen and I will drip into new niches as I reach them. By not being a niche, I will be capable of satisfying each niched need as my many skills reach each point of entry.
In this way I will stay fresh, stay challenged, and become of more and more use to more and more people.
I'd love to hear what you all think about this. I will never presume to "have figured it out" and your commentary, even opposition, is the fire that we all need to continue theorizing, experimenting, and figuring this all out!