One of my favorite concepts from all of those years studying biology was the concept of the niche. An organism or creature finds a spot where the competition isn’t too intense, and raw materials they can work with, and decides to set up shop. They work with their environment and find a place where they can be successful, or they die out. Sometimes the environment around them changes, and the creature needs to adapt or perish.
The same thing is true for businesses, economics, families,you name it- as it’s true for bacteria or lemurs. If you find a niche and can exploit it to your advantage, you have a strategy for success that will carry you far. That is essentially the whole basis for great books like “Blue Ocean Strategy” (Amazon Link) that talk about finding markets where the competition isn’t fierce, or just isn’t there yet- you have the ability to own the niche.
One way businesses achieve this is by creating their own ecosystems. Apple is brilliant at this, with iTunes and the App Store- it has created a whole economy that it owns. It lets others play in the sandbox, helping diversify the entire ecosystem, making it more robust, and letting others compete to fill in the niches of best song, or best movie or best work productivity App, all the while taking a percentage, like an agent, as owner of the ecosystem or world. Amazon has done this, as has Ebay. All of these ecosystems compete at points of overlap- like a town encroaching on an animal’s habitat- but for large swaths of the ecosystem, there is less competition and life goes on pretty happily.
Finding your niche is difficult for a lot of folks, in part, because it starts with the very hard question of who YOU are, what you do best, and what you love to do. Sometimes, we can fill a niche because we are perfectly suited for a job that’s available, but if it doesn’t make you thrilled or excited to go to work every day, how are you really going to have the heart required to maximize the opportunity day after day?
Another spot of friction is when you know your talents and strengths, how do you communicate those to others is a short, coherent, easy to grasp way so they can help you find a niche that works? Some people refer to this as a lobby or elevator pitch- what is your tag line that inspires other people to be interested in you and hire you?
For example, on Twitter, I am largely known as LD Podcast, for the podcast I’ve done about learning and learning disabilities. But the important part there is really the Learning part- that transcends people struggling in school or work with things like dyslexia and ADHD. I feel I’m all about learning and teaching, and trying to find the most effective ways to make your message clear. I read business books and marketing books because these fields are all about making messages clear in order to get someone to buy something. I take all these ideas and concepts and apply them to help businesses, medical education, and other clients/niche owners to make their ideas and talents more easily understood. When you understand, quickly, what someone or some business is about, you can quickly decide whether you need that service, and you can convey that information easily to others- making the idea a virus, as Seth Godin would say. The principals are the same whether we’re talking math facts for middle school kids or marketing plans for adults or social media tools- you’ve got to be able to make a case and sell your ideas for anyone else to understand them and do anything with them. And that, in a nutshell, is about good, precise communication.
Which brings us back to science. In science and technical writing, precision is really important. I’ve spent hours struggling over a sentence or two in an abstract, trying to get the exact language as concise and accurate as possible. Likewise, in law school, your ability to win a case or argument depends on how you use language to communicate your client’s position to another, and use supporting information to convince the decision maker you are correct. In business and marketing, you have to do the same thing- use language to convince someone your product or service solves a need or problem- maybe even one they didn’t know they had. (Just ask Ron Popiel, or read about him in Malcolm Gladwell’s “What The Dog Saw“.)
In the end, it’s all about finding your unique niche where you can thrive. You need enough resources (which includes money and customers for business, often money and students for education) to make the most of the niche, and you have to be constantly willing to adapt and change with the environment. If you can’t adapt and evolve, you will likely suffer, decline, and possible even go extinct, or at least out of business.
It’s easier said than done of course. But the process starts and ends with you, not with the shiny new objects or social media tools or anything else. I’d love to be able to say Get Twitter and life will be perfect, but that’s not true. Like monkeys figuring out to poke a stick in a log to get food, it’s all about how you use that tool to its greatest effect that will bring you success, and it often involves experimentation, failure, and reinvention time after time.
I know my life is one great experiment. I think I know something, and that knowledge gets challenged. I can stick to my guns, or adapt to the new conditions. I have to apply what I know. In reading The Checklist Manifesto- How to get Things Right, they talk about two distinct kinds of mistakes we make all the time. There are errors we make of ignorance- we don’t know what we don’t know- and then there are egregious errors- when we know the right thing to do, but we just can’t seem to execute as we’re supposed to, leading to disaster.
For example, I know easily 20 different diet plan that promise to help me lose weight, but it’s not a lack of knowledge, it’s the consistent implementation over time that causes trip-ups. Part of it is programming the environment, and making doing the right thing easier than doing the self-destructive or ignorant or convenient thing. Part of it is keeping simple rules forefront in your mind, and avoiding the infinite shades of gray.
Success will be measured by how well you can adapt to the “rules” or metrics of your environment, or control the environment to your advantage. It’s how well you can fill your social, cultural or economic niche.
And that’s why studying biology and evolution is essential to everyone. Period. Know your niche and optimize it.