When I was young, I idolized Leonardo da Vinci — yep, I’ve always been a nerd. While at various times in my life I wanted to be an astronaut or a detective or an astrophysicist or a linguist, the desire that was always there, probably underlying all the rest, was to be a Renaissance (wo)man. I saw that as the highest accomplishment. Later in my studies when I came across Goethe, Pascal, Descartes, and Leibniz, I held them up, with Mr. da Vinci, as my models. This is a big part of why, when it came time for me to choose a college, I settled on a tiny liberal arts school that boasts a Great Books curriculum and encourages an interdisciplinary approach to its subjects. I knew it wasn’t the most “practical” choice, but my father and the school’s marketing convinced me that it would teach me “how to think.” I didn’t really know what I wanted to “do” when I entered college, and I had even less of an idea when I left. Sometimes in the years since graduation, I’ve wondered how my life would have been different if I had gone to my other top choice and studied neuroscience and linguistics as I had planned. But this post isn’t about my college experience and the struggles I’ve had since graduation — I’m not ready to tell that story yet. This post is about the tension that exists out there in the world between the idea of having a niche or specialization and of being well-rounded and integrated, and about the shift that I see taking place from the one back to the other.
It used to be the case (back in the days of, you know, Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz) that the well-educated man was knowledgeable in math, science, history, philosophy, and a few languages (among other things). I’m not sure when the shift happened (I can think of a couple possible causes), but now the goal and focus in our educational system seems to be to become highly specialized in a particular field so you can go out into the workplace and do that one job. This is understandable given how competitive the work world is, but it’s also rather sad that people have to give up this broader, integrated knowledge in order to succeed. Some people might not agree with me here. There are definitely people out there who enjoy and appreciate being able to focus on just one thing because maybe they think that’s all they’re good at. I’m not sure. I don’t want to judge anybody or put anyone down, and I recognize that different people’s brains work in very different ways. I just know that for me it’s really difficult to pick just one thing to devote my life to, because I fear that by doing so I’ll be giving up on all the other subjects that interest me.
Another area in which this niche idea rears its head is in the online marketing and blogging world. In its most reasonable form, the idea is that to have a successful blog or service-based business you need to have a very specific niche to focus on so you can more easily prove to people you are the expert they should hire and so you don’t confuse people with a message that is too broad. I do see the logic in this way of thinking, and as a result I have tried beating my inner Renaissance woman into submission and picking a niche for a blog, for a podcast, as a freelance writer, etc. I gave up on that goal with this blog and decided just to write about whatever happens to be occupying my thoughts. I could do that because I wasn’t planning on monetizing this blog — I just wanted it as a place I could share my thoughts. When it came to business plans, though, I continued in the niche mindset. I am still unsuccessful. I started to think, “Maybe this online business thing isn’t for me, after all.” But I’ve come across a few things in the last few days that reminded me of my initial and natural way of thinking and gave me hope that my Renaissance-woman tendencies are not wholly incompatible with actually making money.
The first thing I came across was in a webinar hosted by Sean Malarkey and Kris Gilbertson. They were talking about how podcasting is the next big thing in marketing and giving an introduction on how to start your own podcast. Kris said something that was really quite simple, but it helped get me out of this niche abyss I’ve been staring into. She said that people will often ask her if they have to choose a niche, because they’re really interested in three or five or seven different topics — can’t they talk about all of them? I thought her answer was going to be a straight “No. You need to pick one niche so people understand who you are, blah blah blah…” like you hear most people on the internet say. But her response was, “That’s fine if you have a lot of interests, but you still have to come up with a theme to tie them all together.” (I’m paraphrasing both the question and the response.) Duh! She made a simple distinction between a niche and a theme, and the scales fell from my eyes. A theme — that’s something I can get behind. You do need to have a cohesive message, because otherwise people really will be confused and never know what to expect from you. But that does not mean you have to focus in on the tiniest little sliver of the market in order to stake your claim and dominate that one tiny thing. There’s a balance. And I think the world is shifting to a place where success will belong to those who can creatively integrate a few (even several?) different disciplines into a cohesive and marketable theme.
The second thing I came across that bolstered this new (but actually old) way of thinking was on brainpickings.org. Where else? Probably my favorite website and the work of a Renaissance woman more worthy than I. In a post entitled “Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Connections Are The Key to Creativity,” Maria Popova discusses a book by Denise Shekerjian (Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born) and shares this quote: “Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way.” Shekerjian also quotes Gould as saying, “It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.” Now, I’m not comparing myself to Gould or any other geniuses out there. However, I do recognize that I see some connections that other people don’t see, and reading this quote from Gould gave me some hope that maybe the way I think about things is special too. This gave me another boost of confidence to ditch the niche and go back to thinking about business ideas in a broader and hopefully more creative way (I’m still working that part out).
The third thing I saw that gave me one final push (and led me to believe the universe was sending me signs) was a New York Times article entitled “Learning to Think Outside the Box” by Laura Pappano. The focus of this article was on the fact that more colleges and universities are offering creative studies programs in their curricula. The reasoning is that “creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill” that is becoming more and more sought after in the workplace. The line from the article that really resonated with what I had been thinking about for the previous couple of days was a quote from Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia: “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields.” The author of the article goes on to say, “When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated.” Now, I already knew this (case in point: my four years spent pursuing a liberal arts degree). But I had let myself be pushed around by the “experts” out there telling me how to be practical.
So I have come to the conclusion that I can and should get out of the niche mindset. Not only will this be healthier and more in line with how my brain works (which really should have been enough of a reason all along), but it looks like the world is starting (again) to recognize the great worth of having an integrated understanding of things. My prediction: soon enough, “niche” will be a thing of the past.