To niche or not to niche?

Niches are great, but so is experimenting until you find the right fit.

"Only 10% of you will end up in the same career you started out in." 

Our class of 110 was half asleep in our 8 am anthro lecture when our professor told us this. That's also why that's a paraphrased quote.

As a child, I went through career choices at lightning speed — fashion designer (couldn't draw), journalist (wanted to sleep at normal hours; LOL), and all math-related careers were quickly thrown out. But, back then, it was not only acceptable; it was encouraged. 

As an adult? If you even think of switching within your industry, there are a host of questions and dilemmas for you to deal with. 

Jack of all trades, master of none

When I began freelancing full-time, I had to contemplate my niche. What would my superpower be? I had to pick my specialization and area of interest to find consistent, high-paying work within that niche. I suppose this is true for full-time folks, too — you choose an industry, pick a role, and specialize in it so you can climb the ladder to the top. It's all very systematic and sensible. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm a person of many, varied interests and am easily bored if I have to stick to one or two things. This makes freelancing the perfect career for me — but picking a niche becomes a right headache. 

Niches are profitable — everyone and their mother has been sharing that piece of advice for a while now. And to be fair, they are. 

But for someone in the early stages of their career, picking a niche and pigeonholing yourself into it simply because "niches are profitable" can hamper your growth.

Here's my example. I'm a freelance writer — that means I can write pretty much anything under the sun, but through trial and error, I've found that I prefer (and excel at) long-form writing, like this newsletter. Social media posts are crisp and fun to write too, but I like to take my time connecting with the reader. That's another reason I like emails and newsletters — suddenly, I've got three specializations, and we haven't even explored the industries I write for!

Even though other forms of writing and content marketing may pay well, it took some experimenting to find out what I liked best and could get paid well for. I started as a generalist and still consider myself one even though I've managed to identify specific industries and writing formats that work for me right now.  

But better than a master of one

That's the key phrase, right now

When people advise you to pick a niche, it puts a lot of pressure on you to choose well. What if you don't like the thing you picked as a niche within a year or two? What if you outgrow it? What if you like something else better? 

Without taking some time to find out which of your interests is profitable and worthy of pursuing expertise in, you could potentially spend years working on a niche only for it to be useless to you sooner than you expected. 

Let's look at this from a full-time career perspective. Millennials and Gen Z are often told to 'work hard' in their 20s and 30s so they can buy houses and save up to settle down. In this crumbling economy, most of us have also been encouraged to pursue profitable careers, mostly in STEM, because careers in fine arts and creative spaces are fraught with difficulty and low pay. 

Now, let's assume you pour your blood, sweat, and tears into a single niche and chart a great career path within your industry. Assuming you pick well, you should be an expert by the time you're 30-35 and rake in big money. Good for you! You've got a straight path to follow to the top, more or less. 

But what if you don't pick well. Given the speed our current technology is evolving at, if you build a career in a niche that will be automated or useless in five years, you'll be made redundant before you can convince the website that you're not a robot. 

Sometimes, you can do everything correctly — pick the right career in a timeless niche but still be let go because of budget cuts or a pandemic. If you didn't allow yourself some time to experiment, you now have extensive experience in a role that no one really needs. 


Give yourself time to find your niche

At the start, being a generalist can feel a bit awkward because you don't have specialized expertise to offer clients and consumers. But soon, your diverse experience can actually be wielded as an asset. 

You're better able to connect with people because it'll be easier to find something common or familiar to talk about if you've tried a bunch of things. Conversations flow easily, and your experience helps you form a deeper connection with whoever is on the other end — a hiring manager, a client, or a customer. 

Once again, niches are profitable, and I am fully behind getting one — but at the right time. Whether it's a childhood passion or hobby, finding the right niche takes time, experimentation, and persistence. 

It's also a privilege to be able to jump between niches — someone who needs a steady salary may not be able to do so, and it's our capitalist economy that's failed them. People are being locked into careers that need specific, extensive experience that you can only have if you've entered the industry with an entry-level opportunity in the first place.

Until the digital age, people used to be comfortable working in the same company, industry, niche for decades, even their whole careers. That's not the case now with global connections and borderless opportunities. Plus, it's not like the median pay has increased or anything, so why bother working more on a niche you don't like and don't profit from? 

Hiring managers tend to frown upon applicants who have a lot of job-hopping on their resumes — places they've worked at for too little time. In most industries, you're expected to complete at least a year in a role before you move on (ideally, you don't, but that's how it works in this day and age). 

A year can be a long time to stick around in a role once you realize it's not the right fit for you and vice versa. Companies need to be more open and understanding and create short-term positions for people in early career stages. In my head, that's almost like an internship, but you're paid a living wage, and your contributions are treated valuably. 

This will allow young adults to really find their niche and what they truly excel at — and that's something that'll benefit companies in the long run anyway. People who like their work and are interested in it stick around more than those who are just waiting to call it quits. 

Out of the 110 people in my anthro lecture that morning, I've seen most of them go on to explore and do things completely different from their major, their next degree, or even their first role. 

So, don't force yourself into the first niche, career, or job you find — there are plenty more out there for you to try and experiment with, so give them a chance if you can!

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