Update: 343 of your fellow adventurers are now enrolled in Stature, our new character sculpting deep dive. How would you like to grow your character for 2020 and beyond? Join us for this epic journey!
Have you ever heard the phrase “inch wide, mile deep” with respect to picking an area of focus for your education, career, website, business, etc? The idea here is that you should narrow your focus and concentrate on becoming highly skilled in one particular subfield. Then you’ll be able to carve out a space within your industry where you’re competent enough to compete… and hopefully make a good living.
You can do that. It does work to a certain extent. But this article is about why you may not want to do that.
You don’t have to use the inch wide, mile deep approach to niche down if it bothers you to do so. Many people have mixed feelings about it, and rightly so. There are some big consequences to consider.
I don’t use this approach for my work because I don’t like the lifestyle consequences of sticking to one niche for so long. I’d be bored within a few years no matter what I picked, even if I picked something I love. I like variety too much. This life is precious to me, and while I love doing deep dives, I don’t want to be so myopically focused on any one aspect of life or business for so long that I miss out on exploring the other aspects that also interest me.
You could say that my niche is personal growth, but that isn’t really a niche at all because anything fits into that huge space: productivity, relationships, career, finances, health, lifestyle, values, spirituality, social skills, and more. Name any topic you can think of, and I can link it to personal growth.
Mile Wide, Mile Deep
I prefer the mile wide, mile deep approach. It works well too, but the mindset and framework are different if you want to succeed with it. There are some consequences to accept, but you may actually like those consequences.
To make this work in business, it’s important to focus on the long-term relationship with your audience instead of deliberately trying to nichify or brand yourself into a corner. You want to connect with them as human beings with lots of interests, problems, challenges, and desires – i.e. people just like you – not as monodimensional prospects who care about your niche.
It’s important not to brand yourself in the typical branding sense if you want your audience members to relate to you as a real, multidimensional person. If I brand myself as anything, I prefer to just call myself an explorer. It turns out that many people like being able to maintain our relationship across a wide variety of interests – I like it too! – and branding myself into a singular niche would only get in the way of that.
Doesn’t it kinda suck when you discover a guru you really like, but all they do is speak and write about the same narrow topic over and over again? Wouldn’t it be nice to connect on some other dimensions too, especially if you like and respect the person? How many emails or blog posts can you read about the same thing until you’re drowning in boredom and looking for the unsubscribe button?
The 50-Year Audience
Ask yourself this: What kind of audience could you keep for 50 years? Who’d stay with you that long? In which niche could you expect to still be working in 50 years after you start, assuming you lived that long?
I’ll bet a lot of people in your audience would love to connect with you based on other interests beyond your main niche, and you’re probably not inviting them to do so. So they can’t bond with you as closely as they would with a real life friend with whom they may share multiple interests. But what if they could bond with you that closely?
Motivation can be a lot harder in a nichified business after the first few years. Eventually the repetitiveness and lack of variety start to grind you down. I see this happening in so many friends. The passion just drains out of them after a while. And it shows up in procrastination, lifeless work, and frequent fantasizing about doing something else. What once seemed like a great niche is now stunting their growth as human beings, providing them with too little stimulation and variety. Eventually they begin to think there’s something wrong with them for being experts in their field and not feeling driven anymore.
My business is a lot of fun to run because on any given day, week, or month, I can tackle any topic that interests me. I can switch topics seemingly at random, and I often do. This year I did three-day workshops on abundance, mental development, lifestyle design, and entrepreneurship. I spoke about relationships in Mexico and character development in the UK. I love, love, love that kind of variety.
Even after 12+ years on this path, I’m more in love with the work now than during the first 5 years. Whichever direction my current interests twist and turn, a sizable audience has proven they’re willing to come along for the ride. Of course I lose some people now and then, but in the long run, the narrow-minded, mono-focused people get filtered out as they smash into walls at every zig and zag and can’t keep up with the course changes. Meanwhile the ones who make it through multiple years with me are the ones who, like me, love the variety and enjoy connecting with and learning from someone who’s very much like them – a multidimensional human being.
Breadth AND Depth
You might be thinking that you can’t possibly go a mile wide and a mile deep. You have to go for breadth OR depth, don’t you? It’s an either-or decision. I think Leonardo da Vinci would call B.S. on that, and so would I. Breadth and depth enhance each other. You can have both. In fact, I think it’s a lot easier – and way more fun – to go for both.
If you explore a lot, you’ll become a better explorer. You’ll be able to go deep faster and more efficiently by building skills across multiple areas.
Most importantly, your mile deep will not be in the same spot as someone else’s mile deep. You’ll do your deep dives differently than nichified deep divers.
Your deep dives will also be more holistic because you’ll be able to connect the dots with other deep dives you’ve done. You’ll be better than most people at seeing the big picture and understanding each niche within the context of the others. And that’s going to allow you to offer up some really unique insights, the kinds of insights that even the so-called experts within a field aren’t commonly sharing.
There’s a huge advantage to being unattached to niches as well. You can be ridiculously disloyal to all of your niches and yet still be considered something of an expert within them. You can step into the role of expert within one niche and fire a shot at another niche, then switch sides and fire back. You can explore some really interesting paradoxes this way and find new truths beyond them. I’ll just have to let you chew on that one for a while. This one is hard to describe unless you’ve already experienced it.
Is Your Niche Draining Your Motivation?
Motivation is another key factor. You can dig more and deeper wells if you keep your motivation high. Do you think your depth is really going to be all that deep if your motivation is falling below a 6 out of 10? What if you’re constantly at a 9 or 10 for your motivation, but you jump around a lot? Can you imagine some situations where the 9+ will likely outperform the sub-6?
I’ll readily admit that there are some problems better suited to the stubborn sub-6 who can chip away for years. But there are other problems where the 9+ will win hands down. You can choose to tackle either class of problems. Do you have a preference?
You can actually solve many of the same problems with either approach. You’ll just use different strategies. For instance, a sub-6 might make money with a regular job or with stable self-employment, doing the similar work day after day. A 9+ might earn income by working in bursts, such as by setting up passive income streams (also called evergreen) or by doing income-generating projects.
Also, when you get burned out on some particular niche, you can always take a pause, switch to something else, and come back to it with a fresh perspective. You can go surprisingly deep when you’re able to stave off burnout indefinitely. And every now and then you’ll get lucky just by trying lots of different approaches to many different areas of life. Sometimes gold isn’t buried that deep; it may be buried where no one has bothered to look yet.
The Social Consequences of Nichification
There’s the social aspect too. If you niche down, you’re going to take a lot of your social life into that inch-wide pit with you. By resisting your own nichification, you could enjoy a more varied and arguably richer social life vs. one that’s overstuffed with the same types of people. Partly this is because you can offer up dozens of different interests that people may share with you. Some people will notice that they have a LOT in common with you, and they’ll often reach out to you. If you present more facets for people to connect with, you can attract a great variety of connections as well as more compatible connections.
Also, who really wants to be friends with a mono-focused person? If you go the niche route, there’s a good chance you’ll attract a lot of people who want to connect with you mainly because you’re an expert on that one particular thing. That can be cool for status and income, but it can also lead to a feeling of being used by other people and by society. Do you only want people to relate to you as a tool for their own advancement? That gets lonely after a while. It can also lead to a love-hate relationship with your work.
And there’s the health aspect too, although this tends to be more indirect. As odd as it may seem, boredom can actually become stressful in the long run. When you’re bored with your work, it takes more effort to push yourself to get things done. Your brain doesn’t automatically generate high levels of motivation if it isn’t engaged and stimulated. When you don’t feel highly motivated to work, it’s harder to get results. And when your results start to slip because you aren’t working as productively as you used to, this can create feelings of inadequacy, which makes everything worse. Eventually the external pressures will begin to pile up, and that can create a lot of stress. And that isn’t healthy in the long run. Sadly I’ve seen this happen to a lot of people who nichify themselves into a corner. The worst cases are usually lawyers (no pun intended), one reason being that they often earn a few hundred dollars per hour and get used to that level of income, but they have to keep doing the same work over and over to maintain their lifestyle. Try finding a lawyer who loves his/her work after a decade in the same niche, and I’ll show you a four-leaf clover. I’d probably want to hire that lawyer too… if I ever happened to need one.
* * *
Don’t swallow the nichification pill without reading the warning label first. It’s not the only way to build a following or a business, and depending on your personality and interests, it may actually lead you into a nasty pit of despair. Give some careful thought to the lifestyle consequences of nichification first, and decide whether it’s truly the right path for you.
If you don’t pick a niche, you’ll probably have to build more skills, face more fears, and build a stronger social support network. For people like me, those are powerful reasons not to niche down.