One of the most common appeals of the self-development movement is “to find our niche”.
If we can find that place where we belong, all will fall into place, and all good things will come to pass. If we can get the proper qualification, find the right business, meet the right people, we can become entrepreneurs, and our path to success lights up before us.
It’s a great sell – describe something attractive and intangible, a distance from where we are, convince people we know the way and charge for the journey.
I find there’s one major challenge, in that to carve out a niche, there has to be something solid out of which to carve it. Fluids don’t have niches, and the situation we find ourselves in is most definitely fluid. Niches are eddies that disappear in a swirl before our eyes.
What do we do when there are no niches?
When Roosevelt said this (he attributed the quote to Squire Bill Widener), it was another very fluid time when certainty was scarce, and fear was rampant. The observation was a brutal summary of the reality of the time and a statement of confidence in those he was addressing. While I am not overly keen on conflict metaphors, I think it is warranted here.
The industrial structure that has dominated for the last century is crumbling and offers poor material out of which to carve. This is particularly true if you are young and in or coming out of college and an education system predicated on the dogma of niches.
At the same time, these generations are those who will help us find our way through if we let them. These generations understand fluid in a way that those of us born earlier never will. Technology is what was created after we were born; everything else is the water we swim in – we don’t notice it’s there. That makes these generations more adept swimmers.
Our job is to let them swim rather than believe we need to teach them.
That requires more humility more than an apology. Only a devout conspiracy theorist would assert that we got to where we are intentionally, but nonetheless, here we are, and what got us here won’t get us there.
There no niches right now, only swimmers, and we need to enable those who swim well.
Firstly, the grasping sort, delivered by growth-obsessed businesses, cleverly creating dissatisfaction with where we are, artfully constructing an idealised place where we could be and offering to take us there via its product or service – at a price. This “shadow” variety of marketing rarely takes us anywhere meaningful. With things around changing quickly and certainty is in very short supply, it’s a happy hunting ground for the dark marketers as they harvest the dissatisfaction data and process it via every channel available to them.
Then, there is the generous sort, which aims to understand us, respects who we are and what we want, and makes offers that help us get there. Brands like Patagonia, or Hiut Denim, and the sort that Alan Moore describe in “Do Build”. The building blocks of better.
It’s too easy at the moment to miss the sunrise. As that we are familiar with and used to disappears ever faster, we concentrate on it and feel its loss more than we sense what is appearing in its place. Here are some of what I am noticing:
Connecting to people online with whom I share values and purpose. It is a long way distant from old forms of “networking”; it is deliberate community creation.
The nature of the conversations with people I know. This last year has transformed conversations from the frequent and unchallenging to the regular, purposeful and formative with no mention of work or goals. It feels a little like the early days at University, exploring possibilities.
We have had practical experiments in what we were previously tiptoeing into, from working at home to different ways of meeting.
We have had a full-on examination into what is essential in our lives and those we depend on and value. For many, this has been the biggest shared crisis of their lives.
As we have improvised and reinvented to cope, we have realised that we are good at it. As we address the more significant challenges, we face it stands us in good stead.
Leadership has become real, not a course or a title, and has appeared in places we least expected and absent in areas we did. We are learning from that.
I am optimistic about the future and confident in the ability of those we have learned to trust to get us there and build better. I look forward to more brands that mean something beyond shallow focus group based promises, run and owned by people who commit. Beautiful Businesses.
It will mean significant changes, often uncomfortable and sometimes painful. We can cope with that. It will be worth it.
This week, the emerging potential information on Dark Matter and its mapping have intrigued me. Here is something that we think comprises eighty per cent of the Universe, which we do not understand, and on which our day to day existence depends. I have massive respect for the scientists pursuing this who are quite prepared to say that everything they have believed up to this point may be wrong and who are quite ready and excited to start over.
It led me to think about the dark matter of business. We have a traditional view of what it looks like, with many theories about how it works and innumerable models to show us the structure. Despite that, it still doesn’t work how we believe it should and regularly behaves in a way we think it shouldn’t – economically, legally and socially. Our ability to predict business is way behind our ability to predict the weather, and we are reduced to after the event examination in search of lessons to learn.
I suspect that we have clouds of dark matter in business; we focus on what we can measure and assume that is the totality and that what we understand is a fraction of what makes business work.
Perhaps the dark matter of business exists in the clouds of unexpressed ideas, kept private by those afraid to express them and bother the status quo. There are observations and insights about the longer term that get sidelined by pursuing goals and the inconvenient truths of unsustainable practice. It is there in the diminution of communities starved of tax revenue diverted to places sunny and professionally blind.
I suggest that the amount of dark matter in a business increases disproportionately to its size, and that corporations have far more dark matter per head than smaller, owner-led ones. Given the dominance of corporates in our economy, the amount of dark matter is enormous.
I also suspect that the pandemic is calling into question the traditional physics of business and that more and more of us are looking at it and recognising its deep flaws.
If the reality of the Universe resides in dark matter, then so does the generative nature of business, and it is there that we need to look for what comes next.
Suppose we could release the energy of that dark matter that exists in powerful ideas suppressed, connections curtailed, intellectual property buried in vaults and the enormous amounts spent on tax “management”?
We could transform what happens next.
Our current business structures and associated rights have long passed their use-by date. It is unlikely that corporations will reform themselves – if they could, they would have by now. Legislation and regulation also seem unlikely to do the job. The sheer complexity, collusion and overweight infrastructures involved to overcome it and reshape it by force would take forever and consume even more energy.
The answer then lies with each one of us. Becoming aware of what we let go or bury. The ideas, observations and opportunities not realised in even the smallest amount of action. Not servicing the more egregious transgressions that keep the beast growing and, perhaps most importantly of all, finding places where we can share our ideas and observations with people who will listen.
In the times we are in, generous agenda-free conversations can inspire and encourage us to make small movements away from the bindweed the corporates have become. Such conversations are the seeds that grow into better ways of working and living and a counterbalance to the river of social media rhetoric that we allow to run through our day.
It is not some daydream. Increasing numbers of us have been doing it for over a year and recognise the power inherent in them. They are the polar opposite of the “organised”, “peer group”, “performance-oriented.” varieties beloved of consultancies, and they cost nothing other than time and generosity of spirit.
If you want to organise your own or perhaps join in one that already exists, drop me a line. Conversations, just for the joy of them, can change your life.
Books that are inspiring me
Design as Art. Bruno Munari. A classic work. We have made much of business functional, grey and uninspiring. It doesn’t have to be that way. As Picasso said, we are all born artists; the challenge is to stay an artist as we grow. Business has enough mechanics; we need more artists.
Finding the Mother Tree. Suzanne Simard. Suzanne’s name is one I have known since her work on the “wood wide web” and a BBC video that inspired my grandchildren. I find her work a rich source of metaphor, and I am looking forward to this.
Essentials. David Whyte. Much of business literature has moved to serve the status quo rather than what might be. For that, we need to look elsewhere, and I’m grateful to Sue Heatherington for introducing me to this.
Daydreaming. When we spend our days locked in logical, evidence-based duelling, daydreaming is a powerful tool that gives us access to those ideas that can’t find room in logic land. I’m looking forward to an experiment in this with Dan Lawrence next week.
When Scientists bump into the Mystical. Edge Magazine. For the last year, I’ve been hosting conversations with scientists and mystics about how they understand what is happening around us and finding they have far more in common than I has supposed.
How do teachers find time for their students to think? UofSC centre for teaching excellence. We only have to look around us to recognise how little real thinking people do at work as they spend time producing. It’s a real issue for teachers, and I enjoyed this piece. It’s an hour, but worth the time. There is a lot we can learn from it.
Medicine and Magic. Psyche Magazine. We limit ourselves when we only consider evidence-based input. I liked this article that looks at the role of magic in the pandemic.