I had a school friend who worked on Saturdays at the local op shop. Whenever an item of clothing she liked came in, she’d put it on view somewhere prominent near the front of the store. If it stayed there unsold for three weeks, then - and only then - she’d consider buying it herself. The result was a fairly unique style - bargain clothing that people who shop in op shops wouldn’t be seen dead in.

Obviously it’s important to pay attention to feedback from other people, but what you do with what they tell you can make all the difference.

Kevin Kelly has a great story about how he learned to avoid being the best in order to be the only. Figuring life is short, he decided to focus on the things only he can do. But what exactly is that, and how would he know?

Here’s how he finds out. When he has a great idea he doesn’t keep it to himself like most people would. Instead he tells people all about it. He talks a lot about what he’d like to do, “hoping that someone else would steal the idea”. If no one takes him up on it, clearly it’s something only he is prepared to act on.

Do the things only you can do, he says. If you do what others can do, even if you’re highly skilled at it, eventually you’ll be overtaken. But if you do what no one else will, it’s not a competition. That’s what he means by “Don’t be the best, be the only”.

This isn’t just theory. When Kelly was the editor of Wired magazine about half the articles were submissions and half were commissioned. Kelly would have a whole pile of article ideas that he’d send out to freelancers to write. But he was surprised to find that the pile of his story ideas kept growing because there were some that no one would write, even though he was offering them payment. Some ideas just kept getting turned down. These were great ideas, he thought, but there was no evidence. In fact, it was clear from the growing pile that he literally couldn’t pay people to write them.

Eventually he decided to start writing them himself, and these turned out to be some of his most successful articles.

“If at all possible, try and work on things that no one has a name for what you’re doing”. - Kevin Kelly, Longform podcast, Episode 532 (this comes near the end of the interview).

This advice is perhaps at odds with that of Adam Grant, who says “Every time you create something, people react and then you discover what people care about”.

“If you only focus on your own interest, you tend to develop novel ideas, but not necessarily useful ideas. And so for me, the audience is a filter. … I might have 30 ideas for a book. Let me hone in on the four or five that also might be relevant to other people. The goal there is to make a contribution.” - Adam Grant, Longform podcast, episode 557.

These might look like two different pieces of advice, and maybe they are - either to write what no one else is willing to (Kelly), or to write what others want to read (Grant). Depending on how you understand what people are telling you, the outcomes will surely be very different. In both cases, though, the key is to make the most of the feedback you’re given.

What that looks like, you’ll have to decide for yourself.


Now read:

Choose your own race and finish it

My range is me

The thing about advice is that people do what they want with it