Find A Mode, Maps for Indies & Design Your Own Masters | #184
June 4th, 2022: Greetings from Austin. Was nice to be back at home base after a short trip to Boston and Connecticut. We have about two more weeks here before we are heading out on a trip driving from San Fran to Portland and then up to Seattle for a few days. After that, we’ll be in Connecticut for the rest of the summer.
Safetywing is a company that helps people find affordable healthcare while living in different countries. If you’re American, you’d probably be shocked (as I was) at how expensive our system has become. The cool thing about Safetywing is that the team is also very active in supporting the remote work community. They have a number of things they’ve been involved in recently, including a job board for people in Ukraine, a book about building remote companies they are writing in public, and a remote tools newsletter. In the remote tools newsletter, they review one tool each week.
#1 Find A Mode Not A Niche
The promise of “finding a niche” online is one of arrival. You start dabbling on the internet in some mode of digital creation and feel frustrated. You don’t know what you’re doing and no one seems to be paying attention. If you can just figure out a better way to describe yourself, pick better topics, or narrow your focus everything will get better.
I think this fails but not for obvious reasons. The biggest reason “find a niche” fails is that the people are applying it too early in their journeys. On top of that, it ignores the reality that most people who do arrive at a state of niche-ness usually have one thing in common: they didn’t give up.
This is why a better strategy than finding a niche, especially early, is “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.
This is really shifting from getting out of your head and into your body and thinking like a psychologist, not an engineer:
“Why am I getting physically upset at the lack of interest from other people?”
“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?”
I think the reason this type of inquiry has become harder is that there are far more examples of people that have reached some easy-to-understand metric like money or fame by creating things online. We see other people achieving outsized success that have some elements of niche-ness and because it’s harder to know what really helped them arrive at that point, it’s easy to convince yourself that the only thing holding you back is your own angle, unique set of topics, or brand that might help you distinguish yourself from the pack.
#2 A Map For Indie Living
Tom Critchlow shipped an amazing post for people navigating a pathless path called a “map for indie living.” Tom has been one of the most helpful guides for me a couple of years ahead in the journey.
I like his argument for consulting as a useful first step on a solo path. It was the path I took in the first couple of years and it helped me get some breathing room in my life while I figured out what the real work I wanted to do was. With the hype around the creator economy, many get fixated on digital assets that build passive income and ignore the benefits of consulting. Here’s Tom:
People get an allergic reaction to the label “consulting” but I’d like to argue that trading time for money is a great economic tool. It provides you cash leverage to pursue all kinds of other things
Instead, view consulting work (i.e. freelance work) as a way to stabilize cash flow, build a cash war-chest and leverage into higher order forms of consulting that are high $$ while low headspace (like sparring). Getting to a point where you can do client projects with high revenue and clear time boxed availability is the necessary freedom you need to be able to also build a startup / write a book / build a project that might have real equity.
His second point is just as good, “positioning is for the ego” - what he means is a variation of what I try to tell people: you are not a business. While you may need a story you tell yourself about what you do, the range of options of things you should consider working on is far looser than a company with an established service offering might think.
Highly recommend the full post.
#3 Self-Directed Master’s Programs
If you get into most grad schools you will be celebrated by most people in your life. If you want a way to drop out of the workforce without anyone judging you too harshly, grad school is perfect. I experienced this from 2010 to 2012 when I dropped out of the workforce for 27 months. Based on the earnings I gave up for those two years and the cost of attendance and living, it probably cost me about $200,000. Now the same program only ten years later would cost about $300,000 (mostly due to the literal doubling of tuition from $40k a year to $80k).
At the margins, more people are starting to look for alternatives.
A friend here in Austin recently sold his company and now has a little freedom to figure out what he’s going to do next. He’s around the age when one might reasonably go to grad school and considered taking that route. Yet he realized he already had the motivation and didn’t need to go into massive debt to learn new things.
He decided to craft his own “self-directed masters”
My self-directed master’s program will consist of a slew of six-week long ‘courses’ with two week breaks in between. Each course will focus on a hands-on project with a deliverable due at the end.
For example, I might create a t-shirt brand with the end goal of launching an online store. Or I might build a Rube Goldberg machine and film a video of the end result. Maybe I’ll brew beer and host a party where bottles are consumed. Or I might practice the skills of hibachi chefs and put together a dinner and show for friends. Ultimately, I intend to plan my courses just a few weeks before they start (ideally during my two-week break periods) so I can ensure that I’m spending my time on things that interest me in the moment.
Unlike a traditional master’s program, I’m not sure how long this will last. I’ll cap it at two years (it’ll be time to find a way to make money again at that point), but if an activity from a course overwhelmingly grips me or another opportunity that excites me pops up at some point along the way, it’s nice to know that I’ll have the freedom to pursue it.
I love this idea!
The interesting thing he told me was that a lot of people in his life are still uncomfortable with this. Ask him if he’s going to get a job, etc…
The easy route for him would have been to go to grad school simply because people would have stopped bothering him. I often talk to people who are considering grad school because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives or work. Because grad school is seen as a socially acceptable place to ponder such questions, it has attracted a non-trivial number of people who pay for the socially acceptable story to leave their jobs and figure out what’s next.
I sense what people are really seeking is a mix of a break from work to reflect, an environment that will spark their curiosity, and a chance to shake up their life a little. This is why I usually just challenge them to consider a thought experiment:
Instead of grad school, could you spend 1 year of your life and spend only 10% of what you might on tuition and other costs and still achieve some of the same outcomes you are yearning for?
The point is simply to generate more ideas that the most obvious, popular, and common ideas.
I wish I had asked myself this question 12 years ago. Would I have had the courage to have taken a different path? Likely not, but at least I would have started dreaming.
This is why I love what Ben is doing. I hope he writes more about the experiments and gives other people a roadmap to do this kind of thing on his own.
🎧 #4 Short Update Episode
I’m putting the pieces in motion to get the podcast cranking again. I did a short 5-minute update on the pod this week and should have the first episode out on YouTube and audio this week with Lawrence Yeo.
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Buy my book, The Pathless Path
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