Niches are Overrated
When I worked as IT support at a hospice, my manager urged me to specialize. He would say, 'Do you really want to do end-user support forever?' And the truth is, end-user support isn't all bad. It gave me the opportunity to work with people who did jobs different than mine. I learned about more than just IT. And I wasn't always at my desk.
People at that job generally loved me because I was personable and patient. Even though I worked less than 40 hours a week, people would wait for me to return to the office so that they would be helped by me and not my boss.
But he relied on me heavily, too. I wasn't just providing end-user support and training. I was responsible for implementing and maintaining our mobile device management solution, wrote a lot of our documentation, and researched solutions to problems we faced.
But, to answer my manager's question: no, I didn't necessarily want to do IT support forever. I want work with some similarities: general autonomy but with people to collaborate with when needed, research, writing, and making complex ideas more approachable.
Freelancers are often encouraged to find a niche. But is it really necessary? Over the last week, I came across two posts that really resonated with me.
First, Why Freelance Writers Don't Need a Niche by Lindy Alexander:
I think the pressure and emphasis on having a niche is unfounded. Especially if you’re in the first few years of your freelancing career and especially if a niche hasn’t made itself apparent to you.
Not having a niche gives you flexibility and the ability to pursue various interests and opportunities.
Not having a niche doesn’t mean you are a jack-of-all-trades with your attention split in a hundred different directions. It means that you are curious, adaptable writer. And being a generalist can be lucrative.
Instead of asking what's my niche, ask what work do I want more of and what kind of people do I want to work with.
Then there's Don't Find a Niche, Find a Mode by Paul Millerd. He makes a similar point that people try to find a niche too early in their freelance career. Instead, he says to find a mode.
Find a mode where you can continue to be excited about what you are doing. Find a mode where the friction to getting started declines over time. Find a mode where you are excited to keep going despite being ignored. Find a mode where you want to do something despite not having anything to show for it or in the worst case, despite criticism.
He also offers some questions for reflection, since finding your mode is about recognizing your strengths and continuous reflection.
- Why do I struggle to get started on something despite claiming to care about it?
- When do I find myself most filled with energy?
- Why do I get so excited when I talk about certain topics?
But this is the realization that really hit me:
The most niche-y people often inhabit a territory with a maximum population size of one. In other words, they are just being who they are. They are combining their unique psychology, interests, motivators, and evolving curiosity and know-how to drop into a mode of being that enables them to keep going.
The only thing that matters at the beginning is to stay in the game and find your mode. The only thing that matters is having the energy, excitement, and motivation to keep going.
You are your niche. Being self-employed requires the self-discipline to keep going and the self-awareness to recognize and utilize your strengths. Not every job will be your favorite, but over time you and your prospective clients will gain clarity about where you excel.