Finding Your Niche
"Find your niche" is a popular advice given to budding creators. It's as good as advising someone who's looking for a direction in life to go "follow their passion". While it's true in some sense, it leaves people with a lot more questions than answers. It leaves them in an ocean to swim for their life, when learning to stay afloat in a knee-deep pool would have served as a good starting point.
What is a niche? In the narrow context of creative pursuits, it's often defined as the area of specialization, or the topic of your focus. That too, is limited in its usefulness. I like how it's defined in ecology as the range of environmental conditions in which the members of a species can survive and reproduce. It takes the focus out of you, and introduces into it some externality. It indicates that a niche is something that emerges when factors internal to you blend well with the forces outside of you.
There's another word that captures the wholesomeness of an idea, just like niche does – terroir. It comes from French and refers to the set of conditions, including the climate, the soil, and the topography, that define the distinctive character of a food or beverage. Taste seems one-dimensional; it's only one of the elements of what makes a particular food or beverage special. Terroir captures the completeness of its distinctiveness. In the individualistic societies, where you pick apart the individual characteristics of something and then optimize for one, you often don't realize how the things that you missed impacts the outcome. Niche is more like terroir than taste.
Once you understand niche as such, it helps you think about the set of elements that it's made up of. I like this idea of it as a combination of three ingredients – skills, interests and demand. It's the overlap of what you love to do, what you're good at, and what the world wants. Most people, by the way of their jobs, choose to do things that are in demand, because it pays to work on things that others need. The more skilled you are at it, the more you're valued. But while chasing demand brings material success, it fails to give you a sense of contentment. That's often why people see jobs in a negative light. The so-called "Monday blues", or the joy that Friday brings to people, hints at how people think of jobs, not as something that they gravitate towards, but drag themselves to. Without interest, work becomes an uphill ride, an upstream swim. Considering the amount of time we spend at work, it's unfortunate that not a lot of us devote time to something we love to do. It's not all for the lack of motivation; there could be legitimate reasons for why someone can't live doing what they love. But it's also true that not everybody who can afford to exercise their freedom of choice do so responsibly. Taking one's time and freedom seriously requires reflection. It requires qualities and capabilities that need time to build and acquire, which is easy to be short of in the never-ending distractions and comforts that the consumerist societies offer us. Like wearing a seatbelt makes drivers more reckless, having a cushion in life makes people take privilege for granted. For a brain that's built and evolved to survive in a time of scarcity, it's easy to get lost in the abundance.
As I take on more responsibilities, at and outside of work, I see myself becoming more protective of my time and freedom. Due to the constraints imposed by relationships, and the duties, obligations and commitments that come with it, I'm learning to draw clearer boundaries. Boundaries between things that I care about and those that I don't, things that matter to me in the long run and those that don't. It’s harder said than done, and not least because the act of drawing boundaries itself is hard. It’s because it requires a level of self-awareness that most of us neither have, nor know how to gain. It means digging deeper, and taking stock of your skills and interests, your strengths and weaknesses, your priorities and emotions. As Jonathan Haidt would say, it means observing the inner elephant and helping the rider understand what it wants, rather than blindly justifying every action of it. While I have a general idea about what I enjoy doing, and what I'm good at, I've never quite described it to myself. Like a big dog pulling it's human companion through the leash when out on a walk, the things I've done so far have been primarily driven by intuitions, and gut feelings. While it has done me a lot of good, I wonder what it'd be like to understand where the inner elephant wants to go and help it get there, in a safe and accelerated manner. In the next few notes, I hope to elucidate it to myself, by thinking, and by writing.