Someone I recently met said the other day that they would love to pick my brain about how to start doing what I do, which is to cobble together a living on my own terms, by hustling at a bunch of complementary ventures. I told that person to give me a call, that I'd be happy to chat about my approach to business and earning a living, but it got me thinking about the topic in general and what advice I would give someone like himself, looking to start something that they could someday transition to, away from their current work. There are lots of pieces of this, but the thing I kept coming around to, the key, if you will, to the whole thing, is to figure out what your unfair advantage is.
Notice I didn't say passion. Nor did I say calling, or knack, or even opportunity. These are all good things to have, but they are not, in my opinion, as critical to the success or as defining of the direction of your career as determining your unfair advantage.
Your unfair advantage is what you have going for you that most people don't. Maybe that's lots of free time. Maybe that's some money to throw at this thing, or just financial security. Maybe it's a LACK of money or financial security. It can go either way. Maybe it's being the best at what you do (or really good, for all of you who dislike that kind of metric). Maybe it's just being FIRST. Maybe it's that you don't have kids or other expenses, whether by choice or chance. Maybe it's that you have kids to support and expenses to meet. Maybe it's your location in a city where things are popping or in the country where living expenses are low. Maybe it's your previous skillset or knack with understanding how people tick. Maybe it's your parenting or just who your parents are. Maybe it's your network of friends. Maybe it's your ability to express yourself.
Your unfair advantage is unique to you. There is no moral righteousness about it, and it's not worth wishing it were different. It's not what you have for your unfair advantage that matters. It's what you do with it.
The reason knowing your unfair advantage is more critical to success than, say, passion, is because a love of what you do doesn't help the bottom line turn out differently. You are looking for an in, a way to attract and connect with customers, a way to serve their needs (whatever that is) and a way to establish a reputation. You are looking for a way to make the math work in your favor. But for what? Your unfair advantage might have something to say about that.
Imagine you were really into coffee, and dreamed someday of doing your own thing, something to do with coffee. Let's say you are also a rock climber and live and understand that itinerant rock climbing lifestyle. Your unfair advantage, then, is that combination, and it is the obvious thing to do to start a little food truck (or VW bus, and yes, I know this has been done, that's why it's a good example) that you park at the logical place to serve coffee to all the rock climbers as they are coming on or off the wall. Get it? The unfair advantage over everyone else who wants to do their own thing with coffee is that you have the vantage point to see that this would be dope and to have the cred and knowledge to do something about it.
I have several unfair advantages. The easiest one to grasp and the least braggy is my access to premium quality wood. A year and a half ago, a tornado tore through my neighborhood, just as I was starting out carving professionally, dumping about four acres of forest to the ground just out my back door. For me, it is an hour's work to buck up and move into storage a ten foot length of veneer quality cherry, and there's a lot where that came from. So for me, selling blanks is an obvious move (although when I started selling them it was not my own idea and it was not obvious that there would be demand).
Another unfair advantage I have is my location in New England, 3-4 hours from a number of cities, ten minutes off a highway but in a lovely bucolic setting. This was also not premeditated, but it has made it much easier to have students come to me than if I lived in a more rural (or just less central) part of the country. Under those circumstances, I'd probably take my teaching to the masses instead of having people come to me.
Another unfair advantage is that I'm self-employed at this point, although I wasn't always and know what it is to sell your time and autonomy for money. Working for myself entirely means that I am free to schedule things as works for me, although I do need to be mindful of the needs of my wife and children. It could be your unfair advantage, however, to be employed, with the stability and predictability that brings. Unfair advantage is a mindset.
The point is, wherever you are, whatever you have going for you, there are logical choices you can make that will allow you to work for yourself doing something you love. You won't love all of it, all the time. You will probably be surprised at what you are actually doing (never in a million years did I think I'd be doing my particular mix of work). But you can shift things, bit by bit, in the direction you want to pursue. It takes time to get where you want to be.
And so if I was just dreaming about this sort of thing right now, I do what honestly I do every day, on some level: take stock of who you are. Think about where you live, what your strengths and weaknesses and propensities are. Think about how you want to spend your time, and how to serve someone else's needs. Think about how you will convince others you have what they need. Think about what you need to support in your life, and who. Think about what you've got going for you that few others do.
And then leverage that sucker for all it's worth.
Okay, so. At the very end of carving a spoon, one of the last things you do is cut microchamfers. These tiny little slivers of wood, knocking off a sharp corner, can be fine to the point of ridiculousness.
Now, you may be all about facets. You may be all about surface. You may be all about rustic and you may be all about perfection. Doesn't matter. Microchamfers makes all of these situations better. A microchamfer around the inner rim of the spoon bowl? Crucial. Want a rounded corner? Put two microchamfers on either side of a facet.
Microchamfers are a finishing element, the sprinkle of salt at the end of cooking a dish, the satisfying ending to the movie, the encore at the concert. Microchamfers separate a great spoon from a good one. And as such, they carry parallels to everything in our lives. Because often it's the little touches that separate something great from something good in life, whether it's a thing or an experience. The contrasting thread at the toe of your sock. The extra water pressure in a shower. A real smile from the person helping you when you reach the front of a long line. The smell of gasoline when you're filling the tank on a warm day on the first road trip of summer. Microchamfers.
Microchamfers might seem like they are about skill, but really they are more about attention. They are not hard to pull off: the crisp rustle of fresh sheets on the bed. The twist of lemon on the fish. Actually signing your name at the bottom of a message. Microchamfers.
Sometimes I'm tempted to leave out the microchamfers, because I'm being snookered by the sharp lines of an unadorned facet, or because I think it's not worth the effort. But in the end, how something makes you feel is always more important than how something looks. The relationship that looks wrong on paper but feels just right. The career that you want vs. the one that has the most status. What you say to someone when absolutely no one is watching. Microchamfers.
Something occurred to me the other day while I was driving with my daughters in the car. What often happens is they are absorbed in some game or argument and my mind tends to wander, until I snap out of it and turn on the radio. And where my mind wandered this time was on the dichotomy of surface versus form.
You see, we spend our days chasing the surface of things: getting the finishing cuts on spoons to be perfect, having the perfect veneer of a happy life posted to social media, being able to give the right answer at a party to the question of what we do. We obsess about how we look (I'm no different), how our clothes look on us, and how many followers we have. We are constantly snookered by flash and glitter and sparkly things.
The funny thing, though, is that when you really get down to it, the surface of your spoon matters far less than its FORM. That imperfection you keep chasing out only to have a fresh mark crop up? Totally not going to notice it in a week. But you will definitely notice that you made the bowl too thin and it broke. Or that you overcut the neck. Or that you were afraid to cut down enough because you got the surface perfect early on in the process and let that dictate when you stopped, not the underlying form. But make no mistake: the underlying form IS the thing. The only thing.
This is obviously true of your life, too. How many followers you have (surface) bears no relation to whether or not your relationship with social media is a healthy habit that is sustaining your sense of well-being and empowerment in the world and allowing you to do some good in return (form). The way you look in the mirror is not an indication of how hard you can work, how much grit you have, whether you are cool under pressure, good with people or able to think outside the box. It's not even a good indication of how strong you are! Your life on paper is not YOU. It is the surface of you, and it cannot compare with the actual rich, deep, beautiful form of your life, with all its idiosyncrasies and weirdness.
I try to keep this in mind when I carve. I lean towards designs that push me to value form over surface. Looser, more fluid finishing that emphasizes the underlying shape rather than some complex pattern of facets. How a spoon WORKS is the metric of success, how it feels in my mouth, or works in the hand.
I also try to keep this in mind when it comes to how I think about and evaluate and plan my life. It is always worth asking, when considering something, if it is a patch on the surface of things (a feather in my cap) or if it will truly make me happier, kinder, and better able to help others. Sometimes this is just about the narrative I spin of my life, but sometimes it's a reality check on my motives for doing something.
I was going to end by saying that if you take care of the form, the surface will take care of itself. But that's not quite right. More accurate would be to say that my goal, with my spoons and my life, is to concentrate on the form to the point where the surface becomes irrelevant.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.