There was a time when it was a compliment to be acknowledged for being good at more than one thing. Multiple things, in fact. To be called a Renaissance Man or Woman was an honor bestowed upon the greatest of creative geniuses and multi-taskers -- the likes of Michelangelo and DaVinci -- artists, scientists, creative thinkers and entrepreneurs lauded for their deft ability to create masterpieces in a wide variety of mediums.
Clearly, they weren't told they needed to focus. Or to find a niche.
What a striking contrast to our own era, where we, in our overeager desire to manage everyday life, seemingly want to keep a lid on our most creative thinkers. Teachers trying to maintain order in a classroom, as well as parents eager to give their children the best start in life possible, think nothing of identifying children as having ADD -- labeling a lack of attention as a deficit and a disorder.
And consider our approach to the wonderfully creative thinkers and entrepreneurs that abound in our midst, who are led to believe they will only be successful if they find a niche -- and end up increasingly frustrated by their inability to focus on one thing like they're "supposed to."
What creative thinker doesn't lack focus?
Of course, ADD is a real issue, and for many the inability to maintain attention can pose such huge challenges in life that it would be cruel not to provide a way for it to be managed. What is left open to question though, is how the deficit of attention, the lack of focus, can be leveraged to bring out a person's most creative potential.
This line of thought has direct application in the entrepreneurial world. Consider how business works: it's cyclical, and always has been. Centuries ago, to be a "generalist" had a very broad meaning. Did you know that at one time you went to the same "shop" for surgery and a haircut? That's right, blood-letting and a crew cut from the same master cutter. That's where the traditional red and white barber pole came from: red for bloody bandages and white for haircut. Talk about multi-tasking!
Decades later, department stores and malls became all the rage, representing generalized one-stop shopping. Then the cycle moved towards specialists. Various industries carved out specialty niches. The medical field became so specialized that we began going to a multitude of doctors--one for each body part in need of service.
In recent years, once-crowded malls have been closing, as people gravitated towards unique shopping experiences in specialty shops. For the most part, the increased specialism and service these niche businesses provided came at a price, and consumers proved willing to pay it.
Entrepreneurs clamored to carve out their specialty piece of the pie. I'm amazed at how often I still hear "find your niche" being touted as the best business advice. Here's my short answer to that: Just think, poor Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, with all his diversification -- he must be headed down the wrong path. Someone stop him, please!... Hardly.
So what's going on here? What's the new business cycle we're entering? I call the new crop of multi-tasking, seemingly focus-lacking individuals -- Diversifiers. We've gone from Generalists to Specialists to Diversifiers.
But while we have seen evidence of some innovative large companies like Virgin embracing the diversified business model, the small- to medium-sized business entrepreneur is still suffering from hearing old business ideas like "find a niche." As a business coach for such entrepreneurs, I hear their pleas for help almost daily: "I'm a hot mess," "I can't find my niche" and "I'm just not good at business."
So much unnecessary suffering -- all because creatively-thinking entrepreneurs believe they're supposed to be something other than who and what they are. They're under the impression they're "supposed" to do only one thing, and do it so well everyone will want that one thing only from them and under no circumstances from anyone else. Sound probable? I don't think so.
Not only does having a diversified business model play to the creative strengths of today's innovative entrepreneurs, it may be the only way to survive in the future. Sure, you can get yourself and your business known for one thing to get started, but you can't stay there for long these days. You'll be outsmarted or outpaced by some hot shot or new technology -- making your unique-value proposition obsolete in no time flat. Many specialty products and services have completely become commodities.
If there's one thing to be known for, it's who you are and what you stand for. Not for what you do. This gives today's creative entrepreneurs freedom to diversify and try on various "mediums" that express the impact they want to make in the world as a self-employed, business-building member of society. Just like the old Renaissance masters: "Today I will create with oil paint. Tomorrow I may choose to sculpt. And perhaps I'll study astrology."