You’ve probably heard the advice to focus more in order to advance your career. It’s a lot easier to get referrals if you’re known as “a consultant for nonprofits” instead of just a consultant, or “an organic gardening specialist” rather than a generic landscaper. Indeed, “niching down” is a successful strategy for many thought leaders.
But for many professionals – myself included – it can be painful to select just one aspect to concentrate on. “Renaissance people” thrive on the variety, and it can seem arbitrary and counterproductive to limit ourselves. Fortunately, there’s an equally valid strategy for advancing in your career: placing small bets and letting the market guide you.
A number of years ago, I’d been working as a self-employed marketing consultant, and wanted to write a book – both to fulfill a long-standing personal goal and also as a means of attracting new business. But it was hard to know what to write about. In my consulting work, I was a generalist, helping clients with everything from marketing strategy to social media to message development. And I’d had a cornucopia of past careers, from serving as a presidential campaign spokesperson to making a documentary film, and from being a journalist to running a bicycling advocacy nonprofit. It was hard to figure out what facet of my experience I should write about and – critically – what would actually interest other people.
It was only when I started blogging for a prominent publication in 2010 that my focus clarified. The second post I contributed was about reinventing your personal brand – a topic that interested me because of my numerous career changes. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be my definitive statement to the world; it was one blog post, out of dozens I’d done before and hundreds I’d do subsequently.
But for some reason, this one caught on. It received tons of comments on the web site, and the editors asked me to write an expanded version for their magazine. Within a week of its publication, three different literary agents had reached out to me, asking if I’d be interested in representation. Two years later, my book Reinventing You was released, and I’ve subsequently lectured around the world about personal branding and professional reinvention.
Sometimes you have to experiment with a lot of ideas and see which one sticks. Start by identifying which topics you feel passionate about and place small bets on each of them. At this point, your focus doesn’t have to be laser-like; you can write a guest post for an organic gardening site, create a list of business tips for a LinkedIn post, and organize a Meetup for innovation specialists. Try things out and see what catches fire. Which posts receive the most comments, or retweets, or e-mail inquiries? What seems to capture people’s imagination?
Finding your niche is not an exact science, and you often won’t know in advance what will work. If I had waited for the right idea, I’d probably still be waiting. Instead, I tried out a variety, and in the process, learned which one people cared about. Taking small risks is just like creating a venture capital portfolio: It’s fine when 99 don’t pay off if the hundredth is a huge success.