Cowpathing

Cow-pathing, not cowpa-thing. 🙂


Too many of us say nothing online because we feel that we have nothing worthwhile to say online. We compare ourselves to our “writing heros” in unfair and unrealistic ways. This deprives us of the opportunity to become excellent writers and custodians of vital, impactful ideas.

Others of us chase search volume and trends — the lagging indicators of demand — rather than operating in a more productive but risky place. This place is where idea ownership and market leadership happen. Our pursuit of the lagging indicators of demand too often leads to low-value, me-too content and thinking.

There’s a solution that I call “cowpathing”.

Cowpathing Is Risky

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.

Publishing Adds Feedback

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.

Cowpathing Is A Journey Of Cultivating Expertise

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.

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. When topics approach commodity status, they become the inputs to new, higher order topics. 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.

If you’re happy building a business around commoditized topics and not exploring new, higher order topics, you’ll have a commoditized business. You can make good money this way, but some of us want a different kind of business — we want a profitable innovative business rather than a profitable efficient business. For us, cultivating expertise via someone else’s curriculum is a transitional move, not an end state.

The other approach to cultivating expertise that 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 email 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.

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

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 after 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.

Cowpathing Is Less Risky Than You Think

If you’ll make use of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, you’ll see more cowpathing going on that you would otherwise expect.

We often have our first exposure to Now-Niche-Famous Person X after they’ve been doing years of cowpathing that the Wayback Machine will easily reveal, but because they seem to rapidly explode into the scene we are part of and they arrive with lots of well-packaged, appealing insight, we form an impression of them as some sort of near genius who emerged fully-formed from the Internet’s Zeussian forehead when in reality what got them there was a lot of mediocre, wandering experimentation.

I can’t recommend the following enough. Pick 2 or 3 people you look up to and use https://web.archive.org to look at old versions of their site. Go as far back as you can in the Wayback Machine’s list of snapshots. Click through several snapshots to see the evolution of this person’s published thinking.

Chances are you will not see a fully-formed genius operating at full capacity starting on day one. Instead, most times you will see some version of cowpathing.

Notice all the stuff they were writing about that they seem to have abandoned. Notice the exploratory, tentative nature of the content. Notice if they seem to have an “awkward adolescent phase” that they grew out of.

And if you see what I predict you will, then ask yourself: “Am I really so much smarter than them? If not, what makes me think I can skip the awkward adolescent phase that they also went through?”

Cowpathing feels risky. It does indeed involve some uncertainty and potential for harm (risk).

But I don’t think anyone becomes worth paying attention to if they aren’t regularly publishing work that they found intensely interesting as they were writing[1] it.

Follow your interest.

Take the risk of being a few years ahead of the lagging indicators of demand. Or being multiple layers deeper, more nuanced, or more nerdy than the superficially-interested.

The cowpathing approach, though it entails moderate risk, is the least risky way to become worth paying attention to[2] online.

Notes:

1: I’m very writing-centric in my… writing, but you could substitute “creating” for “writing” almost anywhere I use the word writing. There are certainly plenty of exceptions, but I do think the ideal idea development pipeline for most people is to publish frequent short-form exploratory thinking to an email list, periodically package that thinking into 20 to 40-minute talks, and then memorialize that thinking in medium or long-form writing like position papers, online resource centers, books, or other forms of monetizeable IP.

2: I hope it’s obvious that, as a human being, you are fundamentally worth paying attention to. Those that already know and love you (family, friends) know this. When I say “worth paying attention to”, I’m talking about strangers on the Internet — prospective clients or online audience members — and what makes you worth their attention.