It’s a crowded field…

Usain Bolt, about to stand out at the 2012 Olympics

To compete at the Olympic Games is the apotheosis of sporting achievement for many, but in reality only a select few get to fulfil that ambition. Millions of people run competitively but there’s only one Usain Bolt. Whatever the sport, only a very tiny fraction get to compete professionally and only a few of those succeed. The odds improve slightly in team sports but they have extra layers of complexity as they demand successful interactions with team mates as well as the opposition. They tend to be more popular too.

Yet that doesn’t stop plenty of us trying. And of course we all know that we won’t be lining up against the great Jamaican any time soon, so we find our own level of people we can compete against. Often we just compete against ourselves and get our enjoyment in sport from doing so. The deep satisfaction we get from testing our own physical limits is one of life’s great pleasures for many. You can extend the sporting analogy to writing, art, crosswords, car repair, anything…

But all of these activities are either done for pleasure, or, because we are being paid to do so as part of our jobs. This brings a slightly different dynamic as the way we earn will generally determine the effort we put in. It’s a moot point how effective performance related pay is but however we are rewarded, at work we put into practice the ideas, projects and motivations of others. Even if you have autonomy in your own particular role, how likely is it that you would be doing exactly the same piece of work if you weren’t being paid by an employer? If you think you would, then why aren’t you freelancing?! It’s a slightly mischievous question. We would probably all like to think that we could create something, whether a product or a service, that has a value to someone else such that they are willing to pay for it yet we can’t or don’t go it alone for a whole host of personal, social, or cultural reasons.

In 2016 however, increasing numbers of us are doing just that thanks to the increased connectivity the internet affords us. It’s the age of the start-up, the personal project, the online community, the blog. You can create a website and utilise the power of social media to spread an idea very quickly for very little outlay. It’s a very low barrier to entry in the 21st century marketplace, which is both a blessing and a curse. There are no shortage of options if you’re a customer, but if you’re the one competing for people’s attention, time and money it’s a different story. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make yourself the Usain Bolt of ideas?

Ironically, of course you don’t have to look very hard to get help with this process either. There are no shortage of books, online guides, hints and tips, and self-proclaimed gurus available. A whole industry in fact. But how to choose? My advice would be don’t. Ignore them. Accept the fact you won’t be on that Olympic 100m start line anytime soon. That doesn’t mean you should just give up though. The inventor James Dyson famously spent five years of his life making 5,127 prototypes before he perfected the bagless vacuum cleaner. Those lengths are a little extreme for me, but lately as I have been testing out my own new project to mild indifference — plenty of friendly enthusiasm and support, not so much actual commitment — I was reminded that it is a very crowded field. Particularly when, as I am, your project involves holding events where people have to turn up. I’m not charging to come along, but I do need some commitment of time and attention for it to be viable.

I’m very much at the experimental stage and I have no idea what my idea will look like in three months time never mind by the time the next Olympics comes around. I am curious to see how it turns out though and if I don’t want to be put off completely in the short term I’ll need my own coping strategy based on things I’ve learned and observations I’ve made. So here it is, distilled into five simple principles:

  1. Persistence: Or, try, try and try again. I held an event this week where nobody came. Some people were interested but it either clashed with other commitments, something got in the way etc. etc. It doesn’t mean they won’t come in future. This leads me on to…
  2. Patience: With something new there’s usually no particular rush to get it going. I’m not prepared to wait five years like Dyson, but I know it will take time for my idea to take hold. There are very few overnight successes.
  3. Resilience: It definitely helps to build up some personal resilience. It would be easy to take the indifference I’ve encountered so far as a form of personal rejection. It’s not. I’m asking for attention and time and people have busy lives — it’s a crowded field, remember? I may hold events in the future where again nobody turns up. I will be disappointed but I won’t let it stop from continuing to test things out.
  4. Consistency: It’s important to create the same experience so that people who have shown some interest know what they’re getting every time. That said, it helps to think about why a particular iteration/prototype is not performing as you would hope. If something isn’t quite right with the idea, change it. And then tell everybody.
  5. Belief: Finally, believe in what you are doing. If you sound authentic whenever you are talking about your project, it will come across and is more likely to gain people’s attention. Stop believing and people will notice, and frankly what would be the point of carrying on?

These principles may help you, they may not. You’ve probably heard them before. When my project is pervading every minute of your waking lives I promise I’ll revisit them and see if they were useful or not. But in the meantime, whenever I’m being drowned out by the noise of other people’s ideas I’ll turn to them to remind me to keep going. And who knows, I may race to the front alongside Usain one day.

I’ve held your attention this far so thank you for reading! If you’re prepared to invest a little more time in me, you can see what I’m up to here.