I’ve been trying to teach myself a lesson lately and — I’m not going to lie — it’s hard.
First, some back story.
When I first started consulting, facilitating workshops, and offering keynotes one of the primary goals I had was to get some experience. That meant that if you wanted to hire me, I was willing to do pretty much anything within the realm of my experience and expertise. Based on conversations with other academic side-giggers that I know, I think this is a pretty common phenomenon.
Course and curriculum design. Writing productivity. Preparing for the job market. Brain-based research on student learning. Helping students learn with technology. Designing scholarship of teaching and learning projects. Grant writing. Self-care. Blended course design.
The list goes on — and it keeps growing.
Also, with each publication I’ve finished, and especially with my second book, I’ve expanded my offerings. I started facilitating digital events like virtual keynotes and webinars and offering one-to-one coaching via phone and Skype. For the last several years, I pretty much never said no unless I had a scheduling conflict.
As you can imagine, having this broad list of “specializations” means that I have to be ready to present on any of these topics at any time. It also means that I need to create a large number of different slide decks, handouts, activities, and other presentation components, some of which are tailored to specific campus contexts.
But the main challenge I’ve found is the brain space needed to be this flexible. It’s hard to be an “expert” on this range of content areas. (And, to be clear, I only offer services on topics that I feel that I can speak to from a place of confidence based on my experience, writing and expertise.)
So back to the lesson:
I’m trying to teach myself that just because I can do something (and do it well) that doesn’t mean I should.
For someone who is trying to earn a side income through consulting and speaking, this is a difficult lesson to learn. It means narrowing one’s scope, turning down invitations, and — perhaps toughest of all — prioritizing what you want become known for.
This is a lot harder than it sounds.
I think it’s hard because, really, it comes down to your personal brand. Unfortunately, this is not something that most academics experience any kind of training in. We are actually warned away from being too self-promotional — especially early career academics who can be perceived as too ambitious or narcissistic.
But branding is becoming more and more important for academics and higher education professionals. It’s how we express our credibility, our expertise, and how we develop a reputation in our fields. And, thankfully, academics are starting to talk about it.
Good branding looks deceptively simple but it can incredibly challenging. In addition to thinking about things like credibility, expertise, and reputation, social media now demands personalized fonts, colors, and image designs. Personal branding is also heavily tied to personal and professional values, so communicating one’s brand means having a deep self-knowledge that can take time to develop.
It can also feel limiting (and scary) to clearly define a personal brand. What if you’re missing out on job offers, consulting gigs, speaking engagements or publishing opportunities because you narrowed your scope too much? All of a sudden, FOMO (fear of missing out) becomes very real.
Oftentimes, we keep certain topic areas within our realms of expertise because we feel comfortable with them. We know them well, or we think fondly of those areas, even if they fall out of our current interests. In some ways, it becomes a form of intellectual hoarding. It develops from a scarcity mindset that wants to keep all potential future opportunities available — just in case.
And yet, narrowing is necessary.
For the sake of one’s bandwidth, personal wellness, and mental health it’s important to choose the things that you want to focus on intellectually and, perhaps most importantly, where you want to devote your time.
Because here’s another good lesson: we can’t be all things to all people.
As I’m trying to learn both of these lessons, here are some of the questions that I ask myself when new side-gigs or invitations come my way:
- If I take this job, and it spreads word-of-mouth that I’m good at it, would I want to become known for this?
- Do I genuinely enjoy presenting, speaking, or facilitating workshops/webinars on this topic/issue?
- Does a particular event or area of expertise align with my core professional values?
If it’s not a good fit for me, I also ask:
- Is there someone else I know who could do this side-gig or event and that would be a good fit in terms of their personal brand and niche?
In the coming months, I’ll be revising my professional website to better represent the narrowing of my topic areas. I’m taking several months to reflect on what I truly want to be known for, what I genuinely enjoy, and how I can best serve my ideal clients.
Although this is a scary lesson to learn, it’s also a fun and exciting exercise in better knowing myself as a professional.
To think on:
- What things are you currently doing just because you can? Should you be doing those things?
- What are some of your core professional values and how do you see them aligning with your current work?