So often, when we create and share, we think big. A story that will move a wide range of people. A book that has a large potential audience. An essay that could go viral. A social media post that will get lots of likes.
I’m always talking to writers about how to reach readers. Today I want to discuss the value of not going big, but going small.
Of radical focus.
Limiting your horizons.
Choosing a very narrow path.
And how this can lead to two things that most authors want:
- To feel a sense of personal fulfillment in what you create and share.
- To have other people truly care about your work.
This is the opposite of how many think about their own craft, their own potential, or what needs to happen to become known and find success. There is a tendency to expand. To “go big or go home.” Today I want to talk about contracting. Of finding the magic in by focusing.
Our conversation begins with an octopus.
Now perhaps you have seen or heard of the recent documentary on Netflix, “My Octopus Teacher.” It’s a staggering story, but also a ridiculously simple one. Here it is:
- A man is overworked, and needs a break.
- He returns to his childhood home.
- He starts diving in this really small area.
- He begins to notice things in the ocean. One day it is an octopus.
- He drawn to focus on her more and more.
- He decides to return to the water every single day for about a year to visit and observe the octopus.
- In the process, he becomes obsessed with what he sees, and learning more about what she does and why.
That’s it. Radical focus.
He focused on a very small area to dive. An area that was at once familiar, but also filled with the unknown. When you limit your focus you begin to notice things that you (and others) may have previously overlooked.
I remember hearing a story once of someone who was given an assignment: go to the edge of a local river and just sit there for two hours. The person did this, and described the first half hour was agony — incredible boredom just sitting there with nothing going on.
But then, after a half an hour, they said the world came alive.
Everything was in constant motion, constant change. He was surrounded by a vibrant array of creatures in this amazingly complex ecosystem. The water, the wind, the plants, the frogs, the birds, the fish were all interacting in different ways.
It was so alive, and the only thing that changes was this person’s ability to stop and see it. To listen.
Pausing to observe — narrowing one’s focus — allowed them to see what they were blind to before.
When the diver became interested in the octopus, he decided to film the experience. He was a documentary filmmaker by trade. But you can almost imagine the impostor’s syndrome screaming in his head to NOT pursue this idea of filming an octopus each day:
- “Thousands of people are specialists in octopi. I know nothing about them, it would take years to become an expert. What is casual uneducated observation really going to teach me?”
- “I am filming the ordinary. These are things that people have found in nature for thousands of years. Is there really a story here? Who am I to think I will discover something new in something so well known?”
- “Why limit myself to this tiny area of the ocean? Why not focus on a bigger issue, a bigger region? Maybe something already symbolic of a cause that people are taking about. This alcove is not any more important than a random place in the ocean, why am I looking for a needle in the haystack here?”
- “How will I support myself and my family with this obsession?”
But in the small places, that is where the stories are. When we limit our focus, that is when we can grow as humans.
When you look for stories, the world comes alive.
How can you use this idea to help you engage a readership? Two critical ways:
Figuring Out What to Share
When I work with writers, they are sometimes panicked at the idea of not knowing what to share on social media, newsletters, blog posts, and podcasts. They feel that they just don’t have enough ideas or content. They err on the side of caution. “I could post once a week on Twitter.” Or “I could do a quarterly newsletter.”
The result tends to be, well, lame. They barely show up online. They say the most expected things about their writing. Then, they are disappointed when that doesn’t some how magically grow and engage an audience.
But when you focus on the small – very specific areas of what you create and why, that gives you permission to dive deep. You let go of the worry of “what trends should I write about?” That doesn’t matter, because you are writing about your own narrow area. You let go of the worry of what hashtags to use, or the absolute best time of day to post, and so many other “best practices.” Why? Because these best practices often often copies of copies of copies of what everyone else is trying. Too often, they don’t produce results, they just have you jumping through hoops, always looking at the next thing you are told you “have to do” in order to engage an audience.
Focus deeply on what you care about. Then, double down on it. More so than anyone else.
Figuring Out How to Turn Sharing Into Meaningful Connections and Relationships with Readers
This is the area that so many writers have trouble with. They create content online, but then… crickets. They don’t get engagement, they don’t grow a readership. They see it happening for others, and wonder, “Why not me?” The result is often they slink away, slowly posting less and less, worried that they are somehow “doing it wrong.”
The value of narrow focus is that you are no longer trying to engage just anyone. You are focused on the people who care most about the things that you care most about.
With all of this, the ideas above apply: when you are open to stories in a very specific area — you tend to find them. But not only that, you find the connections to other people as well. The result is that you share and connect with greater focus, vigor, frequency, and exploration. You realize that it is fun to share and connect.
What does this look like? Let me give you some examples.
Jarrett Lerner is a children’s book author. But he’s more than that, he is an advocate for literacy, kids books, and mentoring students. Sounds like a lot right? The truth is, Jarrett brings two things that are accessible to all of us:
- A clear sense of his mission
- Sharing frequently and with generosity
I interviewed Jarret Lerner earlier this year. It’s a really inspiring conversation, I encourage you to check out.
It’s easy to look at Jarrett and think, “Wow! He has thousands followers and he’s really talented as a writer and illustrator.” But he started as we all do: feeling like an outsider who just began sharing what lights him up, and being generous to other authors who may have felt distant from where he was. Now he engages his audience of over 25,000 followers on Twitter. He was clear about his focus, and he dove deep.
Another example is from author & artist Kelli Anderson. I mean, this is actually the first line of her bio: “Kelli Anderson… pushes the limits of ordinary materials by seeking out possibilities hidden in plain view.”
Each day she shares her explorations on Instagram to her 80,000 followers. What you see is someone totally enamored with very specific areas of design. She has this amazing Instagram Live series, where she walks you through an old book about art or design. It’s inspiring to see her pull out this obscure book from 30 or 60 years ago, and then discuss it page by page. It not only gives the book new life, but it allows us to dive deep into a very specific area of focus.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelli a couple years back, you can listen to our conversation here.
Jarrett and Kelli illustrate the difference between vanilla, middle of the road sharing, and truly embracing — finding joy — in focusing on a specific niche. Much like the diver observing the octopus, Jarrett and Kelli are each exploring what they are most curious about, and then sharing that with others. It is about radical focus. They are truly committing to their mission and craft, and sharing it with others.
The question it leaves each of us with is: what will you commit yourself to?
I highly recommend watching the My Octopus Teacher to help inspire you. It’s only on Netflix, but you can see the trailer here.
My friend Jennie Nash is writing about My Octopus Teacher today as well. You can find her post here. We challenged each other to write about it, and see how the story would lead to different types of essays.