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Have you found your niche?

“Charles, you care for nothing but shooting dogs and rats; you will be a disgrace to not only yourself but to your family too.” This was a father’s prophecy about his son. The father wanted his son to be a doctor like him. Charles entered Edinburgh University for medicine at his father’s behest, found it unattractive, later joined Cambridge, and earned an undistinguished bachelor’s degree in theology. He had no firm idea what to do. Charles was an aimless youth at 22. He wanted to do something different. He loved flora and fauna but did not know whether that love could be transformed into a livelihood.

Captain Fitzroy on his ship HMS Beagle was looking out for a naturalist. Charles asked for his father’s permission. His father refused but with a caveat, “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go on the discovery, I shall give my consent.” Neither the father, nor the captain were ready to grant permission to Charles.

There are two approaches of developing one’s career, the conventional approach and the niche-based approach.

  1. The conventional way of selecting a profession for self or for others is primarily decided by the demand for that profession, coupled with tangibles like salary and perks. No wonder Medicine, Engineering and MBAs among others make the cut.
  2. A niche-driven approach on the other hand is decided by differentiating oneself from the crowd by focussing on a niche . It is defined as a comfortable or a suitable position in life or employment. Alternatively, it also means a shallow recess especially in a wall to display something of value – a statue or other ornament. (please refer the image). Let us see what happened to Charles, the aimless youth discussed earlier?

When Charles approached Captain Fitzroy, the physiognomist in Captain Fitzroy said, “I doubt anyone having a nose like yours can possess sufficient energy and determination for the long voyage.”

His uncle drove thirty miles to convince Charles’ father to grant him permission to undertake the assignment on HMS Beagle as a naturalist.

The Beagle Voyage which included the circumnavigation of globe would be the making of the 22 year-old Darwin. Five years of physical hardship of mental rigour imprisoned within the ship’s walls, offset by the wide-open opportunities in the Brazilian jungles and the Andes Mountains, were to Darwin an eye opener in finding his muse. It took him 22 years to publish his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in The Origin of Species.

Is it necessary to be a school or a college topper or those in the top percentile rankings to find one’s niche? Quite often the converse is true as ‘brilliant’ students have the best choices in selecting the conventional options in career and institution.

What can happen when one selects a career in a conventional way but is at the bottom of a pyramid in a specific career stream? Getting a job may look easy but one may be competing with a very large number of aspirants. For example: Rakesh had scored 100/100 in Sanskrit in SSLC. Having felt he had a flair for Sanskrit he decided to pursue his college education in that direction. He completed his BA in Sanskrit from Ruia College in Mumbai.

At this juncture he had two choices in further studies – to continue his studies in Sanskrit or look out for a qualification which is marketable in the job market. He decided to pursue a MBA in Finance instead. After spending around Rs. 8 lakhs in fees itself what can be the likely scenario when he passes out two years later?

For a person who wishes to do a M. Tech in Structural Engineering, a minimum qualification of B.E Civil is necessary. Likewise for a M.S. in surgery, a basic qualification of MBBS is mandatory. So, when a person pursues a MBA in Finance with Sanskrit as graduation the basic competency level expected of the student is that of Class 12th, as a MBA is agnostic to one’s field of graduation.

Conventional wisdom says that one has a wide range of job opportunities after doing a MBA. The opportunities are large but so is the competition. Annually about 360,000 students graduate from 4000 B-Schools of which 61% are unemployable due to skill gaps and low work experience.

Keeping those depressing numbers aside, can Rakesh compete with students from Premier Institutes or those with Engineering and Commerce backgrounds? It is not impossible, but it is a Herculean task.

What would happen if he were to pursue Sanskrit for his PG? In the absence of clear data let us assume that the number of students opting for Sanskrit may be 1% of MBA students that is around 3600. For Rakesh it would have been much easier to be in the 95th percentile after his MA and in the 99th percentile with a Ph.D. A lot of research happens in Sanskrit in US and German universities. By differentiating himself and finding a niche, Rakesh could have had a sense of purpose too.

From a financial perspective too, the cost of pursuing a MA in Sanskrit would have been at less than 10% the cost of a MBA. In case of a Ph.D. he could have explored UGC fellowships or opportunities in US or German universities where considerable research in Sanskrit is possible.

An example of a niche-based career is of my friend, Christopher Jayakaran who passed PUC, third class in 1962. With hardly any worthwhile career options, his father’s friend suggested him to take up a course in Geology. He completed his M.Sc in Geology at Presidency College in Madras by topping in the University. He worked for an NGO called ‘Action for Food Production’ for 7 years and for more than 25 years in different countries in Africa which include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone etc. He is an eminent Hydrogeologist and a Paleontologist. His Tamil book In Search of Ancestors which is on evolution of man based on fossil evidence has run into six editions.

Why are people in general wary of pursuing niche fields?

  1. Obsession for Security: Education is normally pursued in order to get a job. The market demand is thought of. In the post-covid world there is no security either in a job or in one’s qualifications per se.
  2. Managerial Aspirations: Indians in general prefer to have a managerial title early in their career sacrificing expertise in a specific domain.

How to find your niche?

Around 30 years back, I came across an excellent concept in finding ones niche, based on cybernetic principles which was on identifying one’s core competency and focusing on a specific niche where the strength can be leveraged to maximum extent.

Werner Brandes was a German MBA Graduate who was working in a consulting firm but did not have career growth in spite of working hard in that organization for more than 10 years. He was unable to get good offers elsewhere. He was a mediocre student throughout his academic life and passed out from a tier-3 B-school.

The conventional wisdom of competing with others was not giving any results (like the example of Rakesh discussed above). His work profile was mapped for 15 different competencies. Werner was below average in all save one, which was on Industry Setup in rural areas. When Werner was pointed out that this was his niche. He asked, “How can I get a job with such a small niche?” He was advised to start his own consulting in this field and as he was in the top 5% of this ultra-specialized area of business consulting, slowly he was perceived as an expert in this field. Business started growing. Being a sunrise sector wherever the data was not available, his customers helped him in providing the necessary details.

Fascinated by this counterintuitive concept, I launched a program called Strategy for Quantum Growth. After 4-5 programs I had to withdraw as most of the participants did not want a long-term strategy but a new job which paid them 3-5K more.

One crucial difference between the conventional and the niche-based strategy is the type of growth. In case of the former it is logarithmic growth – where it is easier to get a good well-paying job immediately after graduation but after a few years the growth may taper off. In case of niche areas there is a considerable struggle initially but after a few years when the market perceives you as specialist, the growth becomes truly phenomenal and is termed as exponential growth. ( Please refer the graphs below) You are considered as a pioneer and get a first-mover advantage.


Conventional Approach                                                         Niche-Based Approach

Whether in business, profession or a job; there are some who go on competing  against  a vast majority in a commoditized market as if running on a treadmill and getting exhausted. On the contrary, the likes of  Christopher, Werner Brandes or Charles Darwin though not brilliant in their school days in the conventional sense were able to find their niche. Have you found yours?

Two roads diverged in a wood and I…and  I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference. – Robert Frost.