I read Seth Godin’s The Dip last week, and I found it unexpectedly frustrating. It’s a short book, with a very simple premise: you (or your company, or what have you) should pick a niche, and try to be the best in the world at that niche; doing so is alleged to be surprisingly within reach, because most people/companies give up their improvements when they hit “the dip”, a lull that comes before success.

It isn’t just a paean to working harder and longer, though: not all lulls are dips. Some are “cul-de-sacs”, where pushing harder isn’t going to get you anywhere: you’re stuck in a dead-end. (And, to make things more fun, while pushing through the dip to reach a strategic goal, you may find that your tactics have led you into cul-de-sacs, so switch tactics while keeping your eyes on the goal.) So you should marshal your strength: don’t put your energies into cul-de-sacs, don’t put your energies into insufficiently grand goals, pick a goal that matters to you and keep at it until you’re the best.

Which I found quite seductive, until I stopped for a second and thought about it. I suppose I can see this as a fine way in general for businesses to operate: don’t settle for mediocrity, come up with a vision that expresses how you want people to be drawn to your business, and work hard to make it a reality. And if some people want to use that as a way to structure their personal goals, that’s great, too: having people striving to be the best at something generally makes the world a richer place.

But I don’t see why it should necessarily be my goal. I don’t actively want to be bad at things, but I’m usually happiest when I’m following my nose down paths that interest me, when I’m following a few paths (not a lot, but still several distinct ones) at once, and when I give up one path when I’m finding something else significantly more interesting. As is probably obvious to readers of this blog; I’ve long since given up any idea that this blog will be focused on any one topic, or that all the topics will be of interest to anybody but myself: I’m always glad when somebody finds something here of interest, but the reason why I keep on writing is to help focus my thoughts (e.g. via posts like this one!) on whatever happens to be on my mind at any given time.

This doesn’t mean that the book doesn’t have useful lessons: for example, when I began my current study of Japanese, I knew that I’d encounter dips along the way (as, indeed, I have), and made a decision that I was going to stick with it long enough to get some real use out of my learning. (E.g. to be able to read books or to talk to people when traveling to Japan.) But I’m still rejecting the premise of “be the best in your niche”: I can’t think of a niche involving learning Japanese that I’d want to put in the effort to be the best at, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I should avoid learning the language at all because of that!

And (switching back to the winners/losers point of view) I actually think that I’ve gotten some amount of competitive advantage of following my interests down several areas at once; it helped me to some extent in my earlier mathematician career, it certainly helped me in making my career transition out of academia, and it’s helped me make a reasonably successful shift to doing management instead of exclusively programming. (And I think the fact that I’m still doing some programming has helped me be a more effective manager, too.) It’s what I look for when I’m hiring, too: I’m not looking for, say, the world’s top MPEG expert, I’d much prefer somebody who’s happy and good at programming across a wide range of domains and who has the social skills to also elevate those around her. Probably Seth can come up with a niche in which that person would be the best (heck, I probably could myself if I chose to think about it for a while), but I’m not convinced that thinking in terms of niches in which you’re the best is the proper way to analyze that situation. And, having written this paragraph, I’m not even comfortable with its first sentence: I won’t go as far as rejecting competitive advantage, but I don’t want to treat it as a driving force which I’ll unconditionally accept, either.

(Parenthetical note: I’m not sure Seth rejects the idea of being a successful generalist, either. I read somebody, who may or may not have been him, say that being the best at one thing is a good strategy, but being noticeably better than average at a range of things is another successful strategy. And I’m happy to endorse the latter strategy. At least in my role as somebody trying to be successful at a job; I’m still happy to dabble in other areas for fun without worrying about whether or not I’ll become better than average at them. Also, I thought I’d read a blog post where he talked about several (four?) different ways in which people can be motivated and produce wonderful things, of which being the best in a niche was only one; I searched through his blog and couldn’t find it, however.)

I’m glad I read the book; I think I’ve learned something from it, but I really don’t think pursuing the ideas in it very far is what’s right for me. (On which note, I’ll point to Willam Tozier’s paean to generalists, to distraction, to following your nose; see also the Not An Employee blog.) It’s probably time again to think about what is right for me, though. And to reread the Taoism section of my library…

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