This January I was commissioned to write two short articles. It had been awhile since I did the freelance thing, and these pieces were outside the niche that I’d been carving for myself recently, but I said yes because it was an opportunity to make some quick money after Christmas. Also, the publisher has always been a pleasure to work with. And, I mean, it’s pretty hard for a writer to turn down a paying gig. However, I soon realized that taking on these sorts of projects was holding back my career. I was chasing the quick nickel instead of the long dollar.
When I first started my writing career back in 2013, I didn’t understand the value of specialization (among many other things). My passion had always been to write novels, ever since I was little kid, but I didn’t have a voice, didn’t know where to start. So I decided to follow the path laid by many other writers before me that I’d admired: journalism. I did a six-month internship at The Walrus magazine then embarked on a brief freelancing career.
I was interested in a lot of different things and figured it was all just writing. I chased after every possible pitch. I wrote articles about food banks, homelessness, women in the Canadian film industry, Newfoundland traditions, food, and immigration. I said yes to any opportunity.
This taught me two important lessons: 1) in order to be a great writer, or anything really, you have to focus on one very specific thing, and 2) to do that, you have to say “No” a lot.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown shows very simply the power of focusing on one thing vs several things. You can try to do ten things to the first degree, or you can do one thing to the tenth degree. Doing the former means you’ll spread yourself thin and only really nibble around the edges. The latter means you’ll end up actually mastering your chosen field.
There was no way I could write about immigration one week, food the next, and somehow find time to write novels in the meantime without my work suffering.
This begs the question: How do I find my niche? It’s easier said than done. Some people know from the start what they want to do. For example, you may have always wanted to be a sportswriter and every step you took from high school was in that direction. On the other hand, like me, you may have a lot of interests and can’t decide. In that case, I’d suggest doing a lot of things until you find your niche. After writing enough things that I wasn’t interested in, I managed to deduce what I was interested in.
Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready for step number two: Saying No.
Focusing on one thing means that you’re gonna have to say no to things that don’t contribute to your long term goals. And you’re going to have to say no a lot. Like a lot, a lot. What’s more, as you gain success and notoriety in your niche, more opportunities will come your way. You’re gonna need to parse which ones are right for you.
This is difficult for two reasons. 1) Turning down opportunities feels wrong. Like you’re being lazy and unappreciative. This requires discipline and focus. And 2) Knowing the right time to say no requires sound judgement.
Warren Buffett, who is worth an estimated $82 billion, says that the thing that separates successful people is that they say no to a lot of opportunities. Buffett owes approximately %90 of his wealth to just ten investment stocks. Therefore, there is a tonne of value to be found by drilling narrowly and deeply.
Or, consider Stephen King. After Carrie, he had to a choice to publish either Salem’s Lot, which would cement him as a horror writer, or Roadwork, which was more literary. King wasn’t afraid of specializing so he went with the former. I think that’s worked out pretty well for him.
So, whenever an opportunity comes your way, you have to ask, “Does this contribute to my long term goals? Am I chasing the quick nickel or the long dollar?”
That was the mistake I made when I said yes to those commissions at the start of the year. It wasn’t a bad opportunity, just not the right one for me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or snobby, like it’s beneath. It just didn’t fit in with my long term goals. I was chasing the quick nickel.