We all want to be known for something, we all want to make a name for ourselves, but there’s a harsh reality we’re up against:

The reality is people put other people in boxes.

We have a compulsive need to categorize, but it’s not just something we do for fun: we do it out of necessity. People put other people in boxes because people cannot process the true complexity of each and every individual.

We are cognitively limited to maintaining 150 close relationships.

This means you can process the complexities and multifaceted nuances of those 150 individuals, but engagement with people beyond that is superficial.

What does this mean? It’s means people are forced to categorize. They’re going to put you in a box. There’s nothing you can do about that—it’s going to happen. You can choose to see this as a limitation or you can see it as something to be used to you advantage.

What you can do is define the box they put you in. Embrace the fact that you will be put in a box and define what that box is. You have an opportunity to shape the box others are already going to put you in. How do you shape it? You curate what you share.

Curate What You Share

This is the most difficult part. See, because you are a complex individual with many interests and skills, your default state is to project this complex array of interests in a stream of consciousness.

Most people simply dump whatever it is they’re thinking about or working on in that particular moment. It could be woodworking today, it could be back end programming tomorrow, and suddenly, a video of some guitar playing.

The Woodworking, Programming, Guitar Player

People simply do not have the capacity to process the complexity of you being a woodworking, programming, guitar player. You may very well be all of those things, but…

You have a choice: The choice is to be known for one of them or to be known for none of them. That’s the harsh truth.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a lot of interests. It’s completely natural and human to have varied interests and to want to do many different kinds of things. But if you want to be known for something, you have to curate what you share. You have to embrace the box.

Noise

You attract what you project. If you project noise you don’t attract anything. Noise is the unpleasant combination of many things. Individually, those things are nice but adding it along with everything else creates dissonance. When you project noise, you don’t attract anything.

If you want to be noticed, you have to selectively project the thing you want to be known for.

This is the only way you will stand apart from the crowd. The narrower your focus, the more people will be able to digest what you’re about. You’re already going to be put in a box, you might as well make it the most clearly labeled one.

The Greatest Inflection Point in My Exposure Online

I had a web firm where I was doing all kinds of design work: branding, UI design, animation, icon design, illustration, video production, and then lettering on the side. Lettering wasn’t even my day job, it was something I enjoyed doing. Whatever I was working on is what I would post. Whenever I went to Starbucks, I tweeted that I checked in at Starbucks. Who does that anymore? Nobody cares about that.

I started curating what I shared. I started to only post my lettering artwork even though I was working on all kinds of other things. It didn’t happen overnight but over time, people started seeing me as a lettering guy. People were putting me in a box but it was a clearly defined box. I was able to use this to my advantage—I put out a series of lettering courses, Learn Lettering, that grossed six figures in 3 days and continues to support me. The income from that course allows me to put out free content like these videos and podcasts. I had originally spoken about this topic on the podcast (Related: e074 Curate What You Share) and got a lot of questions from it.

What if I Want to Do Something Else?

“Does this mean I can only do one thing for the rest of my life?” The wonderful thing is, you’re not limited to this one thing indefinitely. In the beginning, you are limited. But as time goes on and you’ve established yourself as a specialist in this one area, you will develop an audience.

People want to follow those who look like they have a sense of direction.

They want to know what to expect. You’ve given this to them in the form of your sole focus on one thing over time.

Now that you’ve developed an audience, you have the freedom to pivot. You can actually scale from there and even move from one thing to the next. Here’s the beautiful part of this kind of evolution: the people that have followed you from the beginning will continue to follow you to the next thing and they will still know you for the original thing.

Case in point: people still know me as a letterer even though I’m no longer doing client work, actively making new products with my artwork, or teaching lettering. I taught lettering with my Learn Lettering courses, but I’ve pivoted. I’ve shifted my focus to helping people with business and making a living with their passion. People still follow me for that.

The reason this works is because although people cannot process complexity all at once, they do possess the capacity to process additive complexity. When the complexity is cumulative, they are able to keep up, no problem.

Character Development in TV Shows

For example, just look at the complexity of various character development in TV shows. If the writers tried to develop every single character within a single episode, it would be too much. But when done slowly over time, the viewer is invested and able to process the advancement of the characters.

How Long Do You Have to Focus?

A question I often get is:

  • “How long do you stay focused on one image that you project before pivoting to others?”

I suggest you focus on one thing until people refer to you as, “That [fill in the blank] guy.” Once you get to that point, people have processed you. They have accurately labeled you and have been able to internalize what you’re about. At this point, you have a couple of options:

  1. You can go deeper and strengthen the association.
  2. You can take the opportunity to pivot.

I wouldn’t take the opportunity to pivot until you’ve reached label-status with people.

Start Specific—Not Broad

Most people tell younger people to “take whatever work they can get.” This is terrible advice and it’s rooted in Scarcity Mindset. You need to start specific. You need to start absurdly specific. Then eventually you can take people with you to the next thing.

This is the only way you’re going to get attention in a noisy world. This is the only way you’re going to make a name for yourself. Here’s how I like to put it:

The world cannot process your awesomeness.

Do you want to be just another photographer? Just another designer? Just another developer? That’s what you’re going to be if you follow the advice of “Take whatever you can get.”

Start specific. Curate what you share. Niche down. This is where The Overlap Technique technique comes in. The day job is Step 1. The day job is what should cover your bills. The day job is your foundation. The day job affords you the ability to start specific with the thing you’re passionate about.

Remember, this doesn’t mean you can only do one thing for the rest of your life. You just have to have the guts to niche down to bring people in. You have to give them something tangible to grasp. They need that handle.

They’re going to put you in a box. You might as well define the box that people are already going to put you in, and then you’ll be able to bring them along to the next thing.