Blog Post

The Olympic Spirit: Exemplars of the Niche Professional

I’ve been finding myself inextricably drawn to the Olympics Games this time around, even though I usually can’t be bothered to watch any sports at all. I watch all of the events with pretty much equal enjoyment, the experience akin to that of a refreshing vacation, at least as far as my television watching habits go.

As I’m watching all of these events — mostly via streaming — I’m struck by one thing in particular: The athletes represent the consummate niche professional. They do one thing (or sometimes two or three, but all under the same basic umbrella) and they do it very, very well.

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of being a jack of all trades as a web worker. That remains a good strategy for weathering the storm of economic uncertainty, but in more stable times a specialist will always be paid more than a generalist, and likely have more opportunities at hand, too. At least in some parts of the world, signs of recovery are good, so it follows that now is a good time to look to the example of the Olympian for inspiration.

The key to Olympic success is choosing your sport and focusing on it to the exclusion of almost all else while in training. Depending on the sport, that focus doesn’t necessarily need to be a lifelong aspiration, but while an athlete is training for it, they go all in. No half-measures are involved in competing an an international level. The same is true for the best and brightest web professionals. Take Toronto-based social media expert Scott Stratten, for example. I’ve never come across anyone with quite the same degree of tunnel vision regarding their career and specific niche.

The major differences between a web professional and an Olympic athlete (besides, most likely, level of fitness) are two-fold: First, you likely don’t have a dedicated coach or coaches. Second, the line between training and event is never as distinct for web workers as it is for competitive athletes.

A lack of coaching means that you have to emphasize praxis, meaning you have to observe and take into account both the theory and practice sides of your work. Athletes do this too, but they can focus on the doing while the coach emphasizes the thinking, reflection and analysis that leads to improvement. The best way to go about this is to keep detailed records and work logs. Improving how you work is just as important as improving your product; the two are inseparably tied.

As for the training/performance distinction, this is actually an advantage web working specialists have, depending on how you feel about pressure. Every time you get to flex your muscles, you’re probably doing so in exchange for pay. It’s a good idea to practice when you can with unpaid work that won’t necessarily by seen, or with pro bono work for charitable organizations, but by and large your training will take place on the fly. To simulate the effect of training for a major event, rank your upcoming projects and engagements when possible and treat the smaller ones as lead-up to the big ones. This should help you excel when your work is garnering the most attention.

Unlike Olympic athletes, you might not get a chance at the podium, but you will get a chance at being recognized as among the best in your field. Especially as companies begin to have more money for highly focused projects, sharpening your focus and being the best at your niche could play huge dividends.

Are you a generalist or a specialist?