Grazing -> cowpaths -> roads

Philip Morgan

I love a good 10-year-overnight-success story. Here's one about comedian Sarah Cooper:

Aside from a lot of hard work and followthrough over the years, what I see when I look at Sarah's path to where she is today is the cowpaths become roads thing in action.

(Audio version of this email: /consulting-pipeline-podcast/cpp-140/)

The first place I encountered this idea was on a bike tour of Louisville, KY by a guy who worked in a bike advocacy organization. He less-than-half joked that most of Louisville's streets were laid out by cows. Boston's streets have the same reputation. Apparently it's not true of Boston, but that I still suspect Louisville of bovine street design.

I believe a useful form of order can emerge from chaos. You can purposefully use focused chaos to create order.

In The Expertise Incubator, participants embrace the first challenge of publishing daily if possible, 3 times per week if daily isn't achievable. It's a challenge. It's meant to push folks outside their comfort zone, and stepping outside the mental comfort zone of "I'm doing great if I can publish once per week" creates productive discomfort and unlocks a lot of creativity that was there all along but previously un-harnessed.

Often, folks embracing this daily publication challenge raise the question: "what should I publish about? What topics should I focus on?"

My answer is usually the same: "Follow your interest."

The folks who find the idea of TEI compelling are inevitably interesting people with a range of interests. So when they hear me say "Follow your interest", they wonder which interest I'm advocating they follow.

My next answer is always the same: "It doesn't matter which one. Just pick one, follow it until it loses heat, and then move on. If it doesn't lose heat, great! Keep following it because by following it to depths of greater nuance than others have, you will cultivate valuable expertise."

I am explicitly recommending that folks in TEI act like cows. Just graze semi-randomly all over the field of your interest, and as you do, you'll return again and again to certain areas. Your hooves will wear cowpaths into the field.

Those cowpaths are the topics you are truly interested in, and those topics become an armature around which you cultivate points of view and rare, valuable expertise. The cowpaths become roads.

In TEI you are not just writing, you are publishing. There's a world of difference between the two.

Publishing lets others see you — see your writing and thinking — and lets them react to it. If you publish via email list, the reactions take the form of a reply, which converts your broadcast into a 1:1 conversation that can be quite intimate.

As a result, the audience of your email list can participate in creating cowpaths with you. If you care about serving them, you'll use their replies to try to see them; to try to empathize with their confusion or pain or longing for something better. These replies will generate information that pulls you here or there in your wanderings over the field of topics you could write about.

When you publish instead of merely writing, you serve your audience by finding areas of shared interest; things you care about — grass that you find intellectually nourishing and delicious — that they also care about. You create cowpaths in or closer to these areas of shared concern.

• • •

There are two other approaches to this journey, and I don't like either of them.

The first is to modularize yourself into someone else's curriculum and cultivate expertise that way. This is a good approach for commoditized topics, or for building a foundation of expertise that you launch into your own explorations from. I'm well served, for example, by fitting myself into someone else's curriculum on complex systems rather than trying to cowpath my way to a functional understanding of this domain. (Here's SFI's full catalog of free online courses:

I said I don't like this approach, and then immediately provided an example of liking this approach. :) I contain multitudes.

You'll generally find that curricula exist for commoditized topics, not emerging new topics. If you're happy building a business around commoditized topics, you'll have a commoditized business. I'm not satisfied with that. That's what I don't like about this approach.

But on the other hand, when topics approach commodity status, it's good because they become the inputs to new, higher order topics. So to me, that's the value of submitting to someone else's curriculum: you build up a skill or intellectual competence that can serve as a launchpad for exploration of a new, un-commoditized, higher order topic.

The other approach I don't like is revealed in the common answer to the question: "what should I focus on in my marketing?"

This second approach is an outcome of direct response marketing thinking, which tends to chase demand, and so looks at the measurable lagging indicators of market activity. What are people searching for on Google? What books are selling well on Amazon? What comments have people left about those books? When you survey your list, what do they already know they want/need?

This attempt to measure lagging indicators of market activity then gets formalized into... a content marketing plan.




Sorry for the delay there. I vomited into my mouth a little bit and needed a moment to recover from that.

For solo or very small indie consultants who are working to cultivate rare, valuable expertise, there is nothing more useless than a content marketing plan.

There is nothing more demotivating than sitting down to write a topic you assigned yourself 6 months ago but now it's ice cold because the heat of interest has drained out of it. There are few things that are better at infecting you with a low-grade guilt fever than a topic you yourself chose but now lies on the cooling board.

There is nothing that's better at depriving you of conversations with your market than a list of topics that's safe and obvious enough to show up on Google Trends. And there's nothing that's better at attracting competition than a broad single-word topic like productivity or sales or storytelling or innovation.

It's fine to publish about these broad topics once you have a point of view on them and deep expertise from which to speak. But before you have those things, I maintain that a content marketing plan is the worst path from where you are to having that compelling POV or that fascinating expertise. Modularizing into someone else's curriculum is useful in a limited way, but should be limited to getting up to speed on the commodity inputs to your creation of new expertise in un-commoditized areas.

In the short term, the grazing -> cowpaths -> roads approach feels chaotic and unproductive.

But over the medium term, it's surprising efficient.


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