What Is It Exactly That You Do?


Remarkably successful people habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others won’t go because there’s a lot less competition and a much greater chance for success. – Dan Pena

Saturday, 6.12am

Sheffield, U.K.

In the last post I talked about scenes and how to break into them – by studying them first and understanding that community’s culture.

Today I want to focus on the delicate balance you have to find, the narrow path you have to tread as you work out your own place in this space.

An opportunity to learn the business

The place where it all starts is when you get your first job.

Maybe you join the family business, do whatever your parents do.

Or you’ve studied towards becoming a particular kind of professional – a doctor, lawyer, accountant – and what’s crucial is getting that first internship, posting or training contract.

Or perhaps you don’t really know what you want to do and so you start anywhere, doing temp work, to see what you might enjoy.

What seems like a tiny, insignificant step, just a thing you can do until you work out what you want to do next, seems to end up having a disproportionate impact on the next couple of decades of your life.

You often end up somewhere that is directly a result of that first choice you made.

And that somewhere is a community of people with you in it – but it’s someone else’s community, their business.

For example, let’s say you join a law firm as a new graduate, you’ll find quite a strong hierarchy in how things are done.

The partners “own” the firm and get to share profits.

Everyone else gets paid and has a bundle of incentives that are based on their performance and history at the firm.

Everything you create – the intellectual property you generate – belongs to the firm.

As you progress in your career you may get to the point where you have a chance to buy into the firm, where you become an owner yourself.

And then it becomes your business, along with the others.

But that’s quite rare, most of the time ownership is held in the hands of a few people, and the rest just work there.

While you’re an employee your task is to learn as much as possible and contribute as much as you can.

To their business.

What you want and what they want

You’ll get to a stage at some point where you start to wonder whether you’re making a fair exchange.

What are you getting and what are they getting?

For example, you might have received a lot of work-specific training and now you can do the jobs they want.

But what about your own development, what makes you special, what helps you to stand out?

This is where companies start to get reluctant to invest in you.

Most companies will help you get skills that help them.

But if you want to get a skill that helps you personally, why should they fund that?

A classic question that comes up is whether your company will fund a specialist master’s degree in their core area of work or an MBA, which is a more general management degree that boosts your own personal skill set.

At this point, people start to wonder whether they can go off and start a new business doing what they were doing at the old business.

Start a new law firm, for example.

What you’ll find is that it’s usually not that work related skillset that matters.

What’s really important is the whole collection of business building and business management skills no one bothered to teach you while you were working there.

So you spend the first five years of that new business figuring all that out.

If the previous firm hasn’t managed things that well then you might be able to get away with it.

In most cases, however, if you’ve taken knowledge and capability with you and started a direct competitor, you’ll probably find yourself facing legal issues.

Now, all this has to do with the messy business of working for someone else, but what about your colleagues and professional network, the people who do what you do?

You and your community of practice

A similar situation exists when you interact with peers in your community.

Early in your career you might all be doing the same sort of thing – have the same skills and work on similar projects.

Maybe you’re open about sharing knowledge, maybe you’re not.

There will be people within that community who are the shining stars, the bright lights.

Maybe you want to be one of them – but they’re already occupying that space.

So what are you going to do?

You could wait for your time, continue to contribute and be there and pay your dues, wait your turn.

It may eventually happen.

But just like when you’re an employee it’s hard to tell what’s special about you – what makes you different?

Are you just in a pool with everyone else?

Figuring out your business

Drawing a boundary around yourself – trying to figure out what makes you different is the first step to being able to figure out what is “your business”.

I’m not thinking about this in terms of ownership just yet – more in terms of what’s your niche, what do you contribute that’s unique to you.

Now, unique doesn’t have to mean unique over time and space.

It’s unique when it comes to the space you operate in – the colleagues and peers and customers – that you come across.

If you’re the one person they know who can do that thing you do then they know who to call when they need that thing doing.

And it takes time to figure that out.

Once upon a time you had help.

If your dad was the baker or your mother the candlestick maker, you knew you had a business to step into.

These days what your parents do may have very little to do with what you decide to do.

They might be able to help, with advice, with money.

But how relevant is the advice of even a highly-skilled lawyer when you want to build a career in genetic engineering?

How can they help you find your niche?

How do you know when you’ve found your business?

You probably have something you can build “your” business around when you find that you’re doing something that people find useful but not threatening.

If you can do something in your company that others are happy to call on you for, without feeling that you are a threat to their own jobs, that’s a hint.

After all, most people are worried that the others around them are either trying to get the job they have right now or competing for that next job they both want to get.

If you’re doing something that a peer in the space finds useful – but doesn’t want to, or doesn’t feel that they can do themselves – then you might have spotted something.

It’s not always easy to appreciate just how important it is not to spook others – to make them nervous – especially if you come from a culture where it’s all about the individual and showing your own power and control in a situation.

But if you want to play nicely with others you have to fit in and be useful – find your space and place where you can do your thing and others are curious and intrigued rather than being worried or threatened.

And that takes some figuring out – testing what the edges are, how your thing can work for you to build a career, a business, a life.

I’m starting to feel, as I write these sections, that readers could really do with some real-life case studies.

If you’re reading these posts and you’re in a position where you think your experience might be useful or interesting, and you’re open to participating in a research process, let me know through the contact form or a comment.

And if you’re interested in progress so far, I’ve written 13 posts that have around 15,000 words.

I expect around half of these words will turn out to be filler and irrelevant like this stuff right here, which will all come out when I work on the second draft.

But at least we’re getting started on the project.

Which is the point.


Karthik Suresh

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