Never stop fighting until you arrive at your destined place – that is, the unique you. Have an aim in life, continuously acquire knowledge, work hard, and have perseverance to realise the great life. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
In my last post I looked at the two options you have – do a set of jobs better than anyone else or do something no one else does. Let’s look at the second option in a little more detail today.
If I was doing this as an exercise I’d go to the whiteboard and pull out the VRIO model – four questions you should ask yourself about whatever it is you do.
First, is it valuable? Does it do something for your customer that they need. A good check of value is to ask if they are willing to pay for what they are getting. If they are, then it’s valuable. If they aren’t, then you need to ask some more questions.
Then you ask yourself, is it rare? Is the thing you do something that can’t be easily found? It’s rare to find truly rare things these days. Most of the time you’ll find that there are artificial barriers in the way set up by vested interests. For example, you can’t practice the law or be an accountant without spending time, getting a placement and passing exams. Do you need all that really or is it also a way of restricting access to a profession and ensuring that the people involved control how many others they are competing with? There are lots of arguments trotted out about quality and all that, but the most important point is that the best way to protect yourself is to have a monopoly and most trades try and work towards getting themselves one of those, either individually or as a group. It really doesn’t matter, I suppose, how something becomes rare – what matters is that it is. But it’s worth remembering that it often comes down to having control or having a secret.
The fourth one is the simplest – do you have the organization, the resources needed to do what you do? And the third is the really important one – is what you do hard to copy, is it inimitable, difficult to imitate?
The higher your score on each of these attributes the more likely it is that you will: first, have customers; and second, have high margins.
But what if you aren’t there yet, or anywhere? What if you do something that is relatively undifferentiated, something that’s much the same as the things other people do, something that’s a commodity? We have to recognize that’s not a bad thing and there will be a price at which you will find a buyer for what you’re offering. And if there isn’t, you probably need to find something else to offer. You have to do something to nourish the body – whatever needs doing has to be done.
But if you’re okay with the basics, but you’re yearning for something more then how do you go about finding it? Do you follow the latest lifestyle guru, sign up for a training package that will get you to where you need to be, look for a hack or shortcut that will get you there fast?
It might not surprise you, if you’ve read this blog before, that I’m not a big fan of shortcuts. I think things happen when you’re ready for them. They’re probably happening all the time but you only see them when you have eyes that are ready. It’s very hard to tell when someone else is successful whether that’s happened because they were better or because they were lucky – as every investment fund warns you, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
I’ve recently come across the work of Lynda Barry and I’m trying to understand her approach to this question. Let’s say you’re searching for your thing – the thing that is unique to you. Are you going to be able to think your way into it? Should you take some time and just meditate on the question, talk about your problem, research it, run towards what you think is going to work for you?
I think Barry’s argument is that thinking is not going to work. Few people know what they really want. Do you? Can you say right now that you’re doing exactly what you wanted to do and your dreams have come true? Or can you point to a thing, perhaps someone else who is living the life you want and say that you’d be happy if you just got that? How do you know if you’ll be happy until you live that particular life? And in going after that path how do you know that you wouldn’t have been happier if you had gone a different way?
Barry’s argument is one that I think I agree with and it starts by rejecting any attempt to decide whether what you’re doing is good or bad – the part of you that tries to check and measure and work out if you’re heading in the right direction or have the right goals or are doing the right thing. And this is because doing the right thing, the expected thing, the normal thing often results in the normal, expected, everyday, right thing. But what’s unique about that? If you do everything right you’ll end up completely wrong, you’ll live the life your parents want for you, your teachers advise you to follow, take the steps that should be taken and wonder all the while where the years went and what happened when you weren’t looking at the dark corners, the hidden alleyways, the mysterious pathways that you could have taken but chose not to, as you continued on the main street filled with what’s normal and nice and standard.
It’s the paradox of going after the unique, of hunting that creature that no one has ever seen before. You don’t know where it is or what it is or what it looks like. You can’t think your way into resolving that problem – you have to start by acting. By doing. Something. Anything, that works for you. For example, that thing could be dancing, movement, music, science – anything that’s an art and science is also an art even though it thinks it’s not. Science is a special case of an art, an art that works whether it has an audience or not. For me that start was writing, having a go at putting words down one after the other and seeing if I liked doing it. And drawing. Words and images together work for me. The question you have to answer is what works for you. But don’t spend time answering it – just pick up the first art that you want to try and get on with it.
What will happen over time, if you practice, is that you will start to discover what you like and what you don’t like and what you want more of and what you want less of. The act of acting, of doing will reveal you to yourself and you’ll start to see the shapes, the colours, the outlines of the brilliant, complex creature that you could be, that unique creature inside you just waiting to come out and express itself. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks. What matters is what you discover about yourself.
You have to do for a while, years probably. But after you’ve done something for enough time that’s when the thinking becomes useful, when it’s time to reflect and learn and ask what others have done, because they’ve also probably gone on your journey, experienced some of the feelings you’ve gone through. As the saying goes, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
I think if you want to be happy you are going to have to balance three things – three elements that build on and strengthen each other. Let’s look at those in the next post.