A while ago, I started thinking about a thread on creating “high margin” work. I posted on this at Quickthink, and started to think it over.
There is no doubt that we all would love to be able to do this. We all would like to work less and earn a lot more (high margin work) instead of working more and earning less (low margin work). But no one is just going to hand this type of opportunity to us on a silver platter. And just working harder at what we do now is not likely to convert what we do from low margin work to high margin work. So how do we create high margins? At least where do we get started?
Thank the Lord! It is pretty easy to find the starting point. If no one is going to hand high margin opportunities to you on a platter, you will need to create them yourself. The starting point is within you. We are talking about an individual skill set that we will use to change the way we relate to the outside world. And if it is a skill set, it is something we can get better at as we practice. So the key then is to see what to practice. If we get that right, we can apply the Tim Ferriss approach to learning — identify the 20% of the stuff that we need to do that will give us 80% of the results we want. Then, we do what Shawn White did when he mastered his amazing acrobatics — practice with mindful attention to those parts.
That, dear reader, is the topic for this post. Here we go!
A long time ago, a guy by the name of Joseph Campbell argued that the secret to finding the good life is “to follow your bliss”. Campbell thought that following your bliss would bring out the inner hero in you, and that a heroic life is voila, the same thing as the good life. Since then, lots and lots of people have been influenced by Campbell. The phrase “follow your bliss” has morphed into the more concrete idea that we should “do what we love”. This “do what you love” idea was forcefully asserted by Steve Jobs in his famous commencement address at Stanford University. Jobs argued that this is what made him a success and that it would work for everyone. It is provocative stuff because it challenges the conventional wisdom of an earlier era — that success came from hard work. And it validated something that a lot of people wanted to hear — that inside each of us resides an inner genius. All we need is the freedom to “let it all hang out”. Right. But back to our adventure. Does this lead to “high margin” work?
It is a critical question because these days, we accept as obvious the idea that enhanced creativity can solve all problems. And we believe that we find this creativity within ourselves, by nurturing out individuality and core loves. Thus, the key to adding value around us lies with unleashing our inner creativity. And many see life as a journey inward to find out how to do this. It is also argued that this is a profoundly humanizing process. That if we were all engaged in this process, the world would be a better place. But is it true?
Before shouting out “yes!” we might take into account that there is an opposing view. Miya Tokumitsu lays this out in an interesting piece in BI. Miya argues that as we focus more and more on realizing our inward passions, we lose touch with what is going on outside of us. Our inner loves do not necessarily match social needs. In other words, whatever we might gain in individual spirit by questing inward is offset by a lowered capacity to work hard at stuff that is not so lovable – but needed by others. Ouch!
Is Miya onto something? Well, I think that she is onto at least one thing that is critical to creating high margins. High margins are offered to folks who can meet urgent needs. In other words, how much you love or hate what you do has nothing to do with whether someone is willing to pay you to do it at any given moment in time. It could be that loving what you do now could lead you to work hard and learn how to do it better. And it is possible that when you get really, really, really good at it, that the value of what you produce goes up. But even in this rather attractive scenario, how much will it go up in the eyes of others? That depends on what others are willing to pay, not on what you would like them to pay. And this is a story that we know well – the starving artist who cannot persuade people that his or her painting, sculpture, or even collection of trash bags is a work genius. So if we are focused on creating high margins, we cannot simply pursue a “love what we do” strategy. It is totally ok to love what we do, and perhaps it is even great to love what we do, but it is not a great strategic idea to select what we love on the assumption that others will love it too. We need a better selection tool that opens our eyes to what others need and want to pay for.
So how do we start thinking about that? Good question. The first step is to start seeing what others want, instead of what we want. That takes us to Dan Pink and his book, “To Sell is Human”. He calls this skill “attunement” and I will be discussing it next.
FOLLOW – Steve Blank uses Joe Campbell in an interesting way – to bring out the common aspects of the start up adventure.