Finding Your Niche
Standing out in an overcrowded creative profession can be tricky. For this second event between the Barbican and Guildhall, Ruth Mariner led a session on redefining success, how to find your niche and how to hit your version of success within it.
Ruth learnt much of this from the Creative Entrepreneurs Scheme at Guildhall and now works as a writer, director and librettist. With her company Gestalt Arts, she’s worked on projects such as Liquid History, a collaboration with the National Maritime Museum, and A Shoe Full of Stars, a comic opera about terrorism. She also works freelance and runs The Librettist Network which acts as a catalyst for new opera.
Big Hairy Audacious Goal
Before we start the session, Ruth encourages us to introduce ourselves unconventionally, with our B.H.A.G: Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Speaking from the future, we imagine someone has granted our biggest career wish. “You don’t have to think realistically,” Ruth says, “Be ambitious.”
E.g. Hello, I’m a Nobel Prize winning writer and head of an international arts charity.
If you’re finding it difficult, write the key themes you’re interested in exploring over your career. E.g. creating communities, interdisciplinary performance, art as therapy.
What is creativity?
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” – Steve Jobs
School tends to teach us that certain paths lead to certain jobs. However Ruth encouraged the idea that all experience is relevant to your work, and it is never too late to change direction. “All paths are valuable.” She reiterates the idea of creativity as connection; the connection of our past experiences, and our connection to other people.
“Creativity is so much more than making something. Creativity is how we interact with each other.” – Mike White
When feeling disheartened or dissuaded from a passion, Ruth pushed resilience and trust in your gut. “The only person who can decide what to do is you.”
What is unusual about you?
“You are already standing on a mountain of value.” – Daniel Priestley
Write a list of things you think make you a little different to other people. You want to ensure you have a positive relationship with everything you write down, so try to think of the things you like about yourself.
- Inside/outside the discipline
- Weaknesses (this could be something you’ve previously thought of as a negative, or have been told it’s a bad thing, but could be incredibly useful)
Too many people do what they think they should do, following the defined paths. Ruth encourages thinking of your own values and running with them. As Meryl Streep says, “What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength.”
Define your value
Now you’ve got your list, think about how these aspects of your personality can be of value. Think about them in relation to different people and purposes:
- Value to others (e.g. audiences, participants, communities other artists etc)
- Value to yourself (e.g. enjoyment, attitude, resilience, creativity)
- Value to your artistic field (e.g. depth, meaning, innovation)
- Value to the industry (e.g. does it solve an industry problem?)
- Value to funders (e.g. does it correlate to the values of funding bids?)
Ruth once saw her indecisiveness as a weakness, but it has led to her being incredibly flexible. It has allowed her to create performances on a wide variety of topics in a wide variety of roles, leading to some of her dream jobs. In the creative industries, it can often be encouraged to focus on one skill, whereas in reality having a range of skills can be incredibly useful.
Combining all of these thought exercises, Ruth encouraged us to return to the ambition we set through our B.H.A.G and to think about it in relation to their value. “Think about what you’ve developed as an interest, and how those qualities can be valuable to others, your artistic field, industry etc.” How can these skills which make you unique help to achieve that goal, or to take a step closer to it?
These exercises can help to articulate thoughts to yourself, to turn your perceived weaknesses into strengths, to understand your value, or to think of challenges to overcome.
Why do we need to occupy a niche?
- Less competition
- People can find you more easily
- People will talk about you more easily (once you become known for something, you become the go-to person for it)
- You can focus on your passions
One participant asks how far collaboration and competition go hand in hand. Ruth suggests that however eager for collaboration you are, you should continue thinking about ways to make you stand out in the crowd.
Why you need to be the best in the world
Ruth reads a section of The Dip by Seth Godin. “People don’t have a lot of time and don’t want to take a lot of risks […] You’re going to head to the best person in the world.” When people want someone to do a job for them, they’re looking for the best, with little time and resources, so you want to be the first on their mind.
Godin also outlines how to choose when and what to quit, and when to keep pushing through. Ruth summarises: “Quit wisely.”
If you don’t have anything to differentiate yourself, you become a little faceless. “So thinking about how to come from a genuine place can help you stand out.”
The 5 P’s: Steps to claiming your niche
The 5 P’s come from Daniel Priestley’s powerful blueprint for entrepreneurs, Key Person of Influence. It discusses choosing a niche within a market and becoming the go-to person dominating that niche.
What you do and how it is of value to other people. This is your B.H.A.G and how you can use it to be useful for other people.
Elevator pitch – know how to sum up your own use very quickly. Get it down to 2 sentences.
How can you gain credibility within your field? Is it through a qualification or an association with a particular body? Perhaps it’s a blog or writing for a particular magazine.
What happens when people Google you? Or Instagram you? It is easier to claim a status within your niche if people can see you.
Who can help you? E.g. organisations, funding bodies, networks, community centres etc. There should be mutual benefit, so think about what you can give other people and what they can give you. When you look for collaborators, Ruth says: “it’s really important to invest if your peers because they will grow with you.”
It is also important to look for those older or more advanced than you, as they can give credibility, expertise and potentially mentorship. “I always work with people I think are better than me,” Ruth says. “Being challenged helps you learn.”
Ruth advised thinking about all of these ideas together, identifying what you need to achieve your goals, how to pitch yourself and who can help you along the way. “Think about what makes you distinct and how you can use those things.”
Your niche can change, she reminded us. You can also have more than one niche. As a final reassurance, she noted it was only in the year after the entrepreneurship scheme that she became truly productive. “These ideas take a long time to seep in, especially if you’re thinking of something from your heart.”
Be bold, be ambitious, and become the best.
Find out about upcoming Creative Career sessions here.
Blog post by Kate Wyver