Turning Sideways

Choose a niche and own it.

That’s the dominant advice of the land, if you’re building something online.

And if you think about it, this is nothing new: we’re encouraged to stake a claim and focus from early on in our educational careers. Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades, be a king of something. Mastery is the goal, and spreading yourself too thin will prevent you from achieving the concentrated understanding that proficiency demands.

There’s nothing at all wrong with mastery, but I disagree that one must focus on something, to the exclusion of all else, in the pursuit of it.

I further disagree that a person can master only one thing. Who came up with this advice? Someone who has little faith in our capabilities, it would seem.

I’m pretty sure I’d die of boredom if I could only ever talk about travel for the rest of my life. Or entrepreneurship. Or minimalism. Or writing. Or branding. Or whatever.

None of these areas of interest preclude me from investigating, enjoying, and achieving some level of mastery in the others, so why should I be expected to put all my marbles in one jar? Doing so ignores the fact that if you intentionally spend those marbles, expending them on things that interest you, that keep you alert and awake and engaged in your explorations, you tend to generate more and more of them. An ever-growing, ever-regenerating pile of marbles to spend.

That is to say, interest isn’t a finite resource. Time absolutely is. As is effort and energy. Attention, likewise, isn’t something you can stretch infinitely.

But interest? Curiosity? The will to keep learning, to keep investigating, to keep exploring, to keep improving oneself? These are pursuits that don’t spend marbles, they multiply them. Following your curiosity is like planting a marble and ending up with an orchard of little marble trees; a multitude of marbles, all ready to be dropped into jars.

There was a choice I made about a year into blogging, back in 2010, that I wasn’t going to flatten myself for the sake of this new career path I was on.

As I mentioned, the dominant advice was to own a topic, a category, a collection of keywords. I was setting myself up to be the traveling entrepreneur guy, and branding work completed, I was producing content that backed this up. I was emphasizing these aspects of my life. I was on my way.

But I had a moment of clarity in which I realized, holy hell, what if I want to stop traveling at some point? What if I don’t want to talk about business anymore? What if I want to, I don’t know, write a book? Or start a podcast about geeky things? Or move to Kansas and learn to cook?

I wouldn’t be able to do these things, because the life I’d built for myself would be too mono-dimensional. Too focused and flat.

Yes, I would look very big and sturdy and impressive when viewed head-on, but if I turned sideways?

I’d disappear. Like any flat thing turned sideways, I’d cease to be.

The idea that I’d already invested so much in something so flat, so fragile, was disconcerting. But the possibility that I’d only be able to talk about, write about, care about one thing for the rest of my life? That was frickin’ horrifying.

I started to spin, rounding myself out.

I came up with side projects to ensure I was continuing to grow, and redirected my main project, Exile Lifestyle, so that I was talking about more than how to make money from the road. A lot more.

I lost some readers. A decent-sized chunk of my newsletter readers unsubscribed, confused and disoriented by all this spinning, by my no longer focusing exclusively on this one thing.

But new readers took their seats. And then more joined them. People who wanted to spin with me. People who were curious and engaged, who didn’t want to put all their marbles in just one jar.

Folks who were keen to explore and get excited and be curious, together. People who wanted to go deeper, explore further, be rounder.

Today, I find that I can turn in any direction, start walking, and there’ll be people right there with me. That I’ve been able to cobble together something this resilient still makes me gape with wonder sometimes, because I can’t always clearly explain what I’m up to and what I hope to learn, I don’t generally own the right keywords, I haven’t invested myself completely in one thing to the exclusion of all else.

By many standards, I’m doing it wrong.

And yet it’s never felt so right.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.