Building a Niche of One

Building a Niche of One

I recently read (via DIYPlanner):

Psychologists studying expert and exceptional performance found that it’s not really about talent; it’s about practice. The athletes and chess players we admire have practiced for around 10,000 hours over a span of 10 years.

As I followed the link trails through the article, I was reminded that there are three broad questions I apply over and over again in my day-to-day operation:

  • Why do it?
  • What to do?
  • How to do it?

What’s new about this? I never made the connection between this style of inquiry and how to live, and that this is a way to flip common business wisdom backwards.

What to Do? Just Do!

Starting first with that 10,000 hours of practice: I’d had a similar thought about leveling-up abilities based on a magnitude-of-10 hour scale:

  • at 1 hour … you know some basics
  • at 10 hours … you have a pretty good grasp of the basics
  • at 100 hours … you are fairly expert
  • at 1000 hours … you are an experienced expert
  • at 10000 hours … you are a master

I originally got this idea when reading about pilots, who seem to always mention how many hours of flight time they’ve logged. Hours of experience are a good metric, and I’ve noticed that this pattern seems to recur (up to 100 hours, anyway) for me. It’s not always exactly this many hours, but as an order-of-magnitude analysis it holds true.

While 10,000 hours over 10 years is a daunting proposition, consider this:

  • 1000 hours is pretty doable. That’s a little less than a year of full-time work.
  • 100 hours is even more achievable…you could do that over a few months on the side, or just slam through it in a very intense couple of weeks.
  • Even spending 10 hours practicing something is going to make you significantly better at it. If you spent 10 hours practicing one song, or learning how to juggle, or learning how to bowl strikes…you’re going to learn something.
  • One hour? That’s worthwhile too. You could spend an hour writing your signature over and over again to make it cooler. I’ve done that at least a couple of times in my life.

The point: the ability to improve ourselves is very much within our grasp. I always knew this, but putting it in terms of accumulating hours of experience is awesome. An acquaintance of mine put weight loss in similar terms: “Sure, it’s going to take two years to lose that much weight–it’s a drag. But you’re going to be living those two years anyway, so why not slim down at the same time?”

If we are mindful about the way we exist, we really have no choice but to get better at whatever we’re doing. Mindfulness is the key. There probably is an optimal way of structuring that time for efficient learning, but the general idea is awesome.

Why Do It? Because You Want To, and It Pays Off!

Evelyn Rodriguez of Crossroad Dispatches takes us on a tour of the driving forces behind this in her article An Internet Fed Mostly by Amateurs is Fascinating. She notes that the Internet is fabulous playground for practicing all kinds of art: writing, drawing, making music, programming, and so on. Who cares if you’re an amateur? If you put the hours in, you will get better. She made this interesting observation regarding the word amateur itself with a little Wikipedia goodness:

[…] The other, perhaps somewhat obsolescent usage, stems from the French form of the Latin root of the word meaning a “lover of”. (See amateurism.) In this sense, retaining its French inflexion (“am-a-tEUR”), an amateur may be as competent as a paid professional, yet is motivated by a love or passion for the activity, like a connoisseur.

And that’s really how I want to be living my life. I started this blog to find the patterns in what I was doing, to see where I was spending most of my time. I figured that what I spent the time on (outside of work) was likely to be what I was passionate about.

Combining this insight with the knowledge that the hours have led to an increase in specialized expertise…it’s like discovering a hidden super power that you didn’t know you had.

How To Do? Do it Mindfully!

Question: So you’re putting in the hours and getting better all the time! You’re starting to understand what it is that you’re passionate about, and can see how that passion might be shared with rest of the world. With the advent of master-level skill comes opportunity! How do you not screw up? How do you use that new super power productively?

Answer (via Crossroad Dispatches): By practicing How To Be Creative at Hugh MacLeod’s site Gaping Void.

It’s a list of 30-something incredibly insightful observations regarding the nature of creative self-empowerment. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the creative equivalent of The Art of War, with a dash of the pragmatism of The Prince. It’s great, and is well worth studying. Here’s just the first 9 items:

  1. Ignore everybody.
  2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to change the world.
  3. Put the hours in.
  4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
  5. You are responsible for your own experience.
  6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
  7. Keep your day job.
  8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
  9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.

Read the rest now! It’s fantastic.

Niches, Shmiches

Up to now, I have been trying to describe my practice in terms of services, with the eventual goal of offering products. Why? As far as I can tell, there are three main ways that you’re assessed in a business sense:

  • Are you a great product that I can buy and own? Or do you make something that I can buy and resell at a profit?
  • Are you a great service that fits well into my operation, at a cost-effective price point?
  • Are you someone that I want on my team as a peer, because you expand my reach and capabilities?

So it was important to me to define what products, services, and “peer qualities” I had in terms that other people could understand and visualize. In the Printable CEO, my list of 10 things were geared toward things I could show, because I felt people found that much easier to assess for themselves. This blog is also part of that “being showable” strategem, as it puts my thought processes out there for everyone to see, and leads to assessment on the “is this Dave guy a peer?” level.

What I hadn’t made explicit is exactly what products, services and roles I wanted to offer. I have been asked this over and over:

  • who is your audience?
  • what are your strengths and competitive advantages?
  • who is your competition?

They’re excellent questions, but I’m wondering if I can flip ’em around; they assume that your offerings are specific so you can efficiently target a specific niche. Finding a niche is gives you early access to a potential market with few competitors, and it is a good strategy if you are prepared to dig-in and defend the position against all comers.

The three articles I’ve mentioned give me other paths toward the development of my practice. Reframing them as questions:

  • who are you?
  • what do you find yourself doing?
  • who is your community?

In other words: The niche is you.

Instead of focusing on adapting your approach to the system, make it easy for the system to come to you. Be authentic. Build one person at a time. Be a facilitator and a producer and a maker, and let it all show. Another way of putting it: build your offerings from what bubbles up naturally. If people want you because of you, that’s a tough niche to compete in!

Between both approaches, there must be a happy balance. It is still necessary to describe yourself in terms that other business people can understand and use, but there’s no reason to be limited by categories. Do both.

But following the advice of Hugh McLeod: Keep your Day Job until you figure it out. I’m doing things a little out of order here…his “sex and cash” theory of jobs—that you do some jobs for cash, some for the awesomeness—is something I must reflect on further.


  1. MyMillion 19 years ago

    Thank you for this wonderful post.  I appreciate the clear insight that hours equal experience.  I’ll be using this in my life.

  2. MaryM. 19 years ago

    Wonderful post, thank you.

  3. Sharpfish 19 years ago

    I have always thought that people in general can do a lot more than they believe they can. They just have to make the first move. I usually “pick things up” quickly due to curiosity/interest and an open/keen mind. I say I have “creative” talents and “musical” talents because I naturally drifted towards songwriting many years ago and got on well with it (i.e I didn’t have to “practice” particularly) but then I’m not concert pianist just someone who can play what he needs to get buy and write/record songs.

    When it comes to programming, slightly different – I don’t feel I had a natural ability for it – but I had an overwhelming interest in it from an early age. Therefore every time I tried (and failed) to do things I was practicing, eventually things “click into place” via those mistakes and failures.

    And that is why I don’t see myself as “specially gifted” because anything I do, I believe is relativly easy to learn so long as you have a strong enough incentive / passion for the subject. Obviously you can not be a complete “idiot” if you want to be a programmer, or if you are really bad at maths, English and general comprehension then you may have a tough time .. but it is not impossible.

    I try to set aside half a day a week to just “practice” (for want of a better word) the areas I am interested in or use a lot. This could be going off on a tangent (out of my comfort area) with C++ for instance. Stops you getting rusty or stuck with just the basic knowledge you need.

    The problem is finding enough time to set aside from your main work to allow yourself this “freestyle” time.

    Anyway, thanks for the info / post.

  4. Dave 19 years ago

    Hey Sharpfish!

    Yes, I believe very much the same thing:that people can do a lot more than they believe they can. One of my favorite things to see is to see people have that moment of realization when, YEAH, I can do that. I suspect that’s really what I’m passionate about.

    I like the way that the book “First Break All The Rules” described talent as being merely a predisposition toward something…in other words, real interest and engagement. Skill can be taught and brought up. I think it’s similar to what you’re describing. I tell myself “I can do anything I want”… that doesn’t mean I can do it well, but that’s not always important. The experience, like you say, helps click things into place. I believe that intuition is really the shaping of our impulses by past experiences and emotions, whether we’re aware of it or not.

    Great comment…thank you!

  5. Peter 15 years ago

    Extremely interesting blog. I’ve just read about the “10,000” rule today. I’ve always been fasscinated (well the past year at least) with virtuoso guitarists like steve vai and sartrinai and always wondered what it took to get like that.