🤯Unknown Unknowns #88 - Niches Get Stitches
Niches have always plagued me.
In college, I chose my major by going through every option and ruling them out one by one until I was left with Economics. In my career, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed so I constantly sought out new projects the company was working on. For the last three years, I’ve bounced from idea to idea without much of a consistent theme.
I’ve come to think of this as a feature, not a bug.
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Writing of the Week:
This essay was originally published on WriteofPassage.school on February 15, 2023.
The Dance of the Bees: Finding Your Path as a Creator
Karl von Frisch won the Nobel prize in 1973 for studying how bees dance. Bees dance… and that’s important? The waggles a bee performs are actually a matter of survival. Bee colonies depend on dancing to determine whether to look for new fields of flowers or to return to the field they’re currently harvesting. To ensure the health of the colony, bees use dancing to answer an important question: whether to explore or exploit.
I wish I had a tool as useful and conclusive as the bee dance to help decide what to do as a creator. Every creator wrestles with this question every day — we just don’t know it.
Exploring is dangerous. Bees could wander fruitlessly for hours without any nectar to show for it. There are predators and other dangers that will kill bees if they explore for too long. The danger is certain and the rewards fickle. But a new stash of nectar would ensure the hive’s survival.
Exploiting seems safer, but there are hidden risks that make it as dangerous as exploring. Bees don’t know when the nectar will run dry. The immediate reward is alluring, but the downside is catastrophic. If the bees never explore, the colony will deplete the field and die.
Both approaches have limitations. To ensure the best outcome for the colony, bees must balance their time and resources between exploring and exploiting.
Just like bees, online creators are in pursuit of their own sweet nectar: a Personal Monopoly, a writer’s distinct online presence. But, unlike bees, most creators tend to be firmly entrenched in either explore-mode or exploit-mode. They feel stressed from either fruitlessly searching for a niche or from obsessively building and monetizing their existing audience. Why don’t creators flow between both phases like bees do?
The Pitfalls of Predictability
After finding a niche, a creator basks in the holy trinity of audience, content, and monetization. But it’s easy to slip into a “gaming the system” attitude. As you doom-scroll, how many Twitter threads look exactly the same? How many accounts regurgitate the same content, in a slightly different format, over and over? How often do you hear people talking about their “system” or hacks to optimize productivity and efficiency in front of identical Zoom backdrops?
All of these are symptoms of protracted exploitation. Of course, there is a reason why many creators do this. The formula works. If you follow the blueprint, you’re more likely to get the sugary ambrosia of money, audience, and attention.
Just like in the world of bees, the upsides of exploiting are apparent, but the downsides are hidden. Constantly covering the same ground becomes unsatisfying. Filling out a daily Notion checklist quickly becomes drudgery. Meaninglessness starts to hang over you once you lose purpose and find yourself at the mercy of your audience. Endless exploiting manifests in boredom, dissatisfaction, and apathy.
Looking back at my life, I was always in exploit-mode. I never followed my own curiosity, and I defaulted to what was predictable and proven.
I automatically sorted everything into “useful” and “not useful.” “Useful” are grades, salary, and promotions — all highly visible metrics that can be gamed. “Not useful” are curiosities, hobbies, and adventures — fun, but not to be pursued seriously.
In school, I optimized for grades. Instead of pursuing my intellectual curiosity, I took basic courses to get better grades, in order to get a better job, only to find myself stuck in a finance job where I had no intrinsic motivation. There, I targeted salary and titles and made every career decision through that lens.
Eventually, I started to ask myself why I was there. Every day, I wondered how I could be dissatisfied while getting everything I wanted.
I didn’t realize that what I thought was a giant honey extraction operation was actually a Potemkin village on top of a field devoid of nectar. Promotions and money were knock-off, Walmart-brand, sugar-water honey, not raw Manuka honey from the farmer’s market. Instead of pursuing goals I intrinsically wanted, I kept telling myself to save 10x “just in case,” (or so that I could “retire early”).
It took me years to come to grips with this feeling and even more years to put into words. Andrew Taggart describes it as “a pebble in your shoe” — a nagging thought that you gradually realize you can’t ignore.
By the time I left finance, I had been bored for over ten years.
My field was barren of flowers, yet I remained. Why did the bees’ natural inclination to explore the risky unknown elude me? If bees had made my mistake, their hive would have perished long ago.
The Downsides of Discovery
When I shifted from my career in finance, it was a complete reversal. I started writing, and I took a lot of courses — and signed up for even more. It was a period I exclusively spent exploring. Writing is boundless; you can explore anything. The courses covered new domains like course creation, new software tools, meditation, and philosophy. I experimented with different forms of writing — longer essays, shorter essays, twitter threads, newsletters, even Notion templates.
Writing helped me introspect and come up with new ideas. But as I wrote, I also realized there’s a spectrum between passive exploration and active exploration. Passive exploring is like window shopping; it’s mindless media consumption. There’s no creative spark, and everything remains a possibility. Picture a bee flying from flower to flower, smelling the scents, admiring the petals, but never landing.
Active exploring is the act of creation, bringing your ideas to life, moving from the abstract to the concrete.
Writing lies in the middle of the spectrum. Writing clarifies thought, generates ideas, and can be a call to action, but writing by itself lacks real-world feedback. You must take action and learn from the consequences.
While I learned a lot by writing, I missed all the upside because I was not applying the knowledge. Instead, I had pages of notes collecting digital dust.
What happened to me is common in the Creator Economy. There’s an obsession with tools, courses, and mental models. Creators constantly fixate on the newest shiny objects. There’s a fear of commitment and a deeper fear of criticism and judgment. To avoid the inevitable criticism that comes from building, aspiring creators skirt the surface and passively explore. It’s a maze you can’t see.
Exploring has exponential upside — but that upside is unreachable unless you commit to what you find. Active exploring is more than just surveying options, going down Wikipedia rabbit holes, or adding to your list of courses to take. Active exploring goes beyond discovery; you must take action — and that starts with a risky first step. Columbus didn’t find America by reading Wikipedia.
As Simon Sarris says,
A meaningful first project should have sufficient difficulty that there is some real chance of failure … A chance of failure ensures your hands are firmly touching reality, and not endlessly flipping through the textbook, or forever flirting only with ideas.
Bees may enjoy the process of searching for nectar, but it’s not a trip to the museum. They explore flower fields in order to bring nectar back to the hive. This is active exploring. They have a stake in the outcome.
When a bee finds a field that has potential, she will return to the hive and dance. The bee dance is a signal to the rest of the hive that she’s found something. If she’s convincing, the other bees will follow her back to the field and harvest the nectar. Other bees are also dancing, hyping up their own fields. It’s America’s Got Talent featuring competitive bee dancing. The winning bees celebrate their successful exploration while the losers gear up to find the next field or to improve their dancing skills.
Bees explore in three stages. They look, they dance, and then they act. I was continuously searching for a bigger field of flowers, and writing was my bee dance. But I was missing out on the most important step: taking action. The point of the dance is not to hype up other bees, it’s to find the right field to harvest. If bees had made my mistake, their hive would have perished long ago.
A Dynamic Dance
Bees constantly oscillate between exploring and exploiting. In fact, because there’s tens of thousands of bees in a hive, the colony simultaneously explores and exploits. But for us solopreneurs, this is counterintuitive.
We need a healthy balance between exploring and exploiting, to be nimble and dance between the two phases. But it’s easy to get stuck in one or the other, lacking the self-awareness to get out. We trip over our feet and stay in our comfort zones.
As I took courses and wrote, I hoped I would find a Personal Monopoly, but I couldn’t settle on a topic. I felt weighed down. I was revolted by the thought of being “the ‘___’ guy.” I was afraid I would commit myself to something meaningless, like my finance career.
After about a year, my friend Louie Bacaj suggested that we start a course on how to start a newsletter. We’d both had a newsletter for eight months, and both of us had traction, signs of value. But I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to concentrate on.
“The Newsletter guy?” I didn’t see that guy in the mirror.
Eventually, Louie convinced me to run one cohort of a course on how to start a newsletter. I was hesitant and wasn’t even sure newsletters had value. But in the process of building the course, I realized that starting a newsletter had shifted my mindset from a consumer to a creator. I stopped passively reading; now, I was curating, connecting dots, forming ideas.
My newsletter was my first creative endeavor since middle school.
It sounds small. It was small. But the difference was night and day. Creating builds on itself like a snowball. I went from zero creative output, to writing a weekly newsletter, to teaching people how to take action by starting newsletters. No longer was I drifting like a leaf. Instead, I had agency. My value isn’t arbitrarily and callously determined in some executive’s office; my value is determined by the quality of my ideas and effectiveness of my actions. Everyone should know this about themselves!
None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t stepped out of the comfort zone of exploiting. If you exploit without first exploring, you won’t know why you’re exploiting –– like a bee settling on the first flower field it sees. If you never had a reason to do something, you have no reason to stop doing it either. I’m okay with being “the newsletter guy” for now because I can always step away, and that’s a freeing sensation.
Personal monopolies are not static; as with bees searching for honey, it’s an evolving and dynamic process. Creators need to realize the dangers of being stuck in either an “explorer” or “exploiter” identity. Each is a phase, and it’s necessary to flow from one to the other. While exclusively exploring or exploiting eventually leads to boredom, dancing between the two is invaluable. Exploring replenishes your interest and curiosity. Exploiting replenishes your desire for mastery. And this dance creates meaning — you’re always either going deeper into something you enjoy or following your curiosity in trying new things.
The key is to understand when you should be exploring and when you should be exploiting. If you’re in the wrong phase, you’ll be out of sorts and inauthentic. Writing is the crucial fulcrum, balancing the tension between exploring and exploiting. If it’s difficult to write on a topic you’ve been exploiting, or if you’re bored and curious about other things, it might be time to explore. If you feel compelled to write on a topic, or if your audience reacts to an experiment of yours, it might be time to exploit it.
Publishing is the creator’s bee dance; it helps you find where your intrinsic desire overlaps with what is valuable to others.
What is the main lesson we learn from the bees? There’s a natural flow from exploring to exploiting and back. Fighting the flow, either from fear or uncertainty or greed, will catch up to you. Meaning emerges through the dance, and every iteration refines and evolves your identity. Heroclitus once wrote, “No man crosses the same river. It’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.” Your experiences change as do your opinions, tastes, and desires. Realizing the dynamic nature of yourself gives you permission to shed an old identity and move to a new field of nectar.
🔗 The Dance of the Bees: Finding Your Path as a Creator
I came across these two essays by Rob Hardy, where he discusses his own struggles with niches.
“The problem with niche strategy, in a nutshell, is that it's a reliable destroyer of the human spirit… Niche strategy is an effective anesthetic for those parts of ourselves that squirm and scream when confronted with ambiguity and doubt… I want to be fully myself, fully alive, and keep connecting with people who value the full expression of that vitality, and who who want to partake in the journey with me. Those are true fans. And that's what I'm after.”
His alternative to niche strategy are Containers of Aliveness:
A Container of Aliveness has three ingredients.
Define one or more zesty, aspirational, open-ended questions that bring you alive.
Begin to live those questions and explore them, however imperfectly, in your day to day life.
Fill your online container with artifacts of your lived experience, thus leaving a trail for others who are on a similar journey.
🔗 The perils of niching down
🔗 Containers of Aliveness
Quote of the Week:
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” - James Campbell
You can find more of my writing at chr.iswong.com.
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Leaving you in peace,
The explore-exploit trade-off is a computer science problem about maximizing the utility of computing power.
Right from the jump, 10/10 title!
Really really enjoyed this essay Chris! You are capturing the experience of transitioning from corporate to creator world so well. This idea of the dance between exploring and exploiting is one I’ve thought about often but haven’t been able to articulate. The bee metaphor resonates. Your journey resonates.
So many gems I wanted to quote, but this was the kicker:
“Creating builds on itself like a snowball. I went from zero creative output, to writing a weekly newsletter, to teaching people how to take action by starting newsletters. No longer was I drifting like a leaf. Instead, I had agency. My value isn’t arbitrarily and callously determined in some executive’s office; my value is determined by the quality of my ideas and effectiveness of my actions. Everyone should know this about themselves!”
Side note. It’s funny how context changes what you’re known for. I can see how you’re the “newsletter guy” but I feel like because of WOP, you’re the “editor” guy to so many people. All that to say I think it adds up to the point you’re making. The definition is always evolving.
First of all, “Niches Get Stitches” made me laugh so hard when I saw it in my inbox. 😂
And so awesome to get to read this essay! I’ve been looking forward to it since you told me about it.
I love this: “My field was barren of flowers, yet I remained. Why did the bees’ natural inclination to explore the risky unknown elude me? If bees had made my mistake, their hive would have perished long ago.”
What an interesting point about being in the wrong phase leading a person to be inauthentic. Great read, nice job!!