“Boring-but-stable vs. exciting-but-unstable work”
A good question from my post opt-in survey:
Should I specialize in a field I already know but find boring, or something that I’m new to, but find more interesting and perhaps more impactful?
Here’s how to think about this question.
First, know that as you are trying to understand what lies ahead, you should not think of it as a binary tradeoff between boring-but-stable vs. exciting-but-unstable work. You are powerful. You could create one of those two extreme binaries, but you don’t have to. You can have interesting revenue generation work with suffient stability if you want.
The stability will never be like a salary – the exact same $xx,xxx dollars per month direct deposited to a bank account – but it can be sufficient. You can get sufficient stability from the right kind of revenue model or from extremely profitable but unpredictable projects combined with good cash management discipline.
Back to your question.
Should I specialize in a field I already know but find boring…
Lemme stop you right there. 🙂 Do you really know this field?
A pattern I’ve observed: there are three layers to expertise. It grosses some people out, but I compare this to the three layers of the human skin.
The epidermis of expertise is the superficial stuff. This layer is thin, mostly dead, and very obvious. I and others used the term “expertise” to refer to myself when I was operating at this layer of expertise about the subject of specialization/positioning. I knew enough to be dangerous, and I saw the domain I was supposedly an expert in with a simple Newtonian level of sophistication.
The reality of my domain is much more complex and nonlinear, in the way complex systems operate. At the dermis of expertise, my world is more like quantum physics than Newtonian physics. It involves systems and people and psychology and emotions, all of which interact with the world in fascinating and subtle and sometimes unpredictable ways. I focus on specialization/positioning for solo or very small service-providing experts, and that as it turns out is an almost entirely different world than products or large services businesses. But if we look at the world of consumer products, there is no research evidence that narrow positioning even works (source: “How Brands Grow”). If you’re any kind of positioning consultant, that kind of realization kicks you in the nuts for a bit.
And then you recover. The way you recover is by evolving your model; making it more nuanced in service of greater fidelity to the real world. By incorporating a broader and more complete view of the world, including the new information that just kicked you in the nuts.
This is the intellectual and emotional labor that pushes you through the dermis of expertise into the hypodermis of expertise, where genuine mastery exists. In some domains, the hypodermis has effectively infinite depth. That might be because the amount of change and emergence in that domain is so high that you’re never able to master it all, and instead you’re surfing (enjoyably!) on waves of continuous change. Or it might be because the domain is relatively large, and also quite deep in terms of how much you can learn and incorporate into your models.
Dear questioner, my default is to trust your self-knowledge. Maybe you do in fact already know the field in question.
But please do pause for a moment and ask yourself how deep it might really go and whether there might actually be more interesting work below the epidermis. The problem here is twofold:
- It’s true that we really don’t know whether what lies in the dermis and hypodermis of expertise will actually be interesting to us, because that stuff isn’t visible to outsiders and non-specialists. The 3 layers of the skin are actually a good analogy here because unless you’ve suffered a laceration, you don’t see the dermis of your skin, you only see the epidermis.
- Seeing what the epidermis of expertise looks like requires specialization. Non-specialists only get access to epidermis-layer problems. They haven’t built up the trust and access that specialists have, so they don’t get invited to solve dermis or hypodermis-level problems.
So to resolve this tension, you can do one of two things. 1) You can specialize for long enough to see the epidermis of this field that you’ve deemed boring or 2) you can interview a few folks who have already specialized in this field.
The second approach has the benefit of also providing evidence of market viability. If specialized competition exists, that’s usually a sign of life; an indicator that it’s viable to specialize in this field.
Interviewing existing specialists in the field helps you reduce the uncertainty about whether you’re not seeing something that lies at the dermis or hypodermis of expertise.
If you phrased your interview request in the most blunt possible way (ex: “I would like to compete with you, but I have questions first and I wonder if you’d let me ask them to you.”), I bet you a burrito lunch that 50% of those you send this to will agree to speak to you. Some will do so to “sniff your butt” (dog terminology for checking out their potential future competition), others will do so out of generosity, and others will do so because you caught them on a slow day and why not. You can also request interviews from complementary specialists (ex: a software developer connects with specialized marketing firms because they have valuable market insight, even though it’s not directly related to software development).
If you can prove to yourself beyond the point of reasonable doubt that your head start would in fact lead you into a truly boring dermis/hypodermis of expertise, then consider your alternatives. As you do so, you’re giving up your most significant form of relative advantage, which is access to the possibly-boring field.
And if you launch off into new field that you find more interesting and impactful, you’ll have to create access and credibility. Specialization will be a powerful accelerant in this work, but it is real emotional and intellectual labor.
It’s also thrilling labor! Much of my work has organized around two points in the indie expert’s journey:
- Making the specialization (or re-specialization) decision
- Navigating the epidermis-to-dermis part of the journey, and getting equipped to go nuts exploring and colonizing the dermis of expertise
So believe me, I get excited about folks who are embarking on this flavor of entrepreneurial endeavor, and much of my work is about supporting these folks.
If you do decide to launch off into new field that you find more interesting and impactful, do the following:
- Develop a specialization hypothesis (ex: “I believe the market of independent traders wants a specialist in human performance improvement to help them level up their trading performance.”)
- Inventory all your uncertainties about this hypothesis
- Design and implement tiny (not small; tiny or even microscopic) live market tests to reduce your uncertainties. Not eliminate them; merely reduce them.
If your uncertainty is about whether the market even wants the kind of specialist you’re thinking about becoming, I have an 8-week workshop coming up in Jan or Feb 2021 that will be relevant: https://indieexperts.io/workshops/pmc-csw-specialization/
As I mentioned, I really am a champion for those embarking on entrepreneurial ventures that leverage genuine expertise. That’s what you’d be headed towards if you specialized in a field you find more interesting and perhaps more impactful than the one you have the most access to now. But let me close with a great example of a TEI member piercing the epidermis and moving into the dermis of expertise within a boring field.
^^^ That’s Jim Thornton. He has longer pandemic-hair now. His starting point a while ago was: marketing generalist, with a focus on search engine optimization (SEO).
Don’t those three letters just make you want to fall asleep? Or quickly find the “Mark As Spam” button in your email app to get rid of the spam-level, shitty outreach from a bottom-scraping SEO shop in a low-cost-of-living country somewhere?
Jim embraced the first challenge in TEI, which is to publish something to an email list daily. I elaborate on this much more here (https://philipmorganconsulting.com/the-expertise-incubator/tei-curriculum/), so I won’t slow down my telling of Jim’s story with a diversion into TEI.
As Jim wandered the cowpaths of his interest, he kept circling back to SEO and its overlap with folks who publish a lot of their thinking freely online. At the epidermis of expertise in the SEO domain, you have the. most. boring. shit; advice on formatting titles and keyword competition and getting backlinks and
Oh sorry, I think I dozed off there. I’m back now, refreshed from my SEO-induced-coma/nap.
At the dermis level of the overlap between SEO and folks who publish a lot of their thinking freely online, you have truly fascinating stuff. You find Jim there, investing impressive amounts of energy into R&D. R&D is wasteful. It often produces no measurable short-term ROI. That’s part of the deal.
Jim is gaining competence with a tool called Neo4j, which is a graph database. He uses it to look at the corpus of content that someone like a James Clear would produce and find patterns that are not otherwise visible.
What Jim sells his clients is not Neo4j expertise. He sells them clarity about how to better leverage their existing content asset.
A lot of this expertise cultivation is still in-progress for Jim, and the places it can lead to are truly exciting. There could be a product in there. There could be licensable IP.
The point here: this exciting stuff is happening in the dermis layer of what seems from the outside to be a boring field.
Let me make one more thing explicit: it takes investment of some kind to unlock the potential interest and value that is latent in the dermis of expertise. Clients aren’t just going to hand you interesting problems on a silver platter at any layer of the expertise stack.
Enough for now. I hope this was helpful, and thank you for the question!
Keep building; keep taking risks y’all,