Never assume that because everyone else is doing it, they have found the best way. My career in medicine has consistently exposed me to the reality of man’s ability to perpetuate assumption and maintain status quo. We even go so far as to roundly reject and attack newness and innovation. Here I’m referring to my colleagues, not my patients.
Question 7 in Tim Ferriss’ “17 Question to Challenge the Impossible” returns to an old theme.
“7. What’s the least crowded channel” -Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans
This question came in advance of his launch for The 4-Hour Work Week. In planning his attack strategy he asked writers what resource they wish they used more in their launches. This allowed him to identify that blogs were an untapped resource. This was 2006. Weird to think of blogs being a fresh innovation.
As he did with his work in Question 1 where he maxed his sales stats by working when others were not, he looked for a way to access bloggers where others were not. He asked himself which channel was the least crowded. The answer was to find a mass gathering. That was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Then he looked for a way to access bloggers in a place he could have less competion for attention. Rather than setting a goal to kinda meet a lot of bloggers, he wanted to allow for the opportunity to deeply meet a few. It worked.
There are many layers of strategy we can pull out of this to discover value. The most obvious is the recommendation to approach desired resources from an angle with the least competion. Another is the use of an advisory board to access short-cuts to learning. He also set his goal in a place to be predictably achievable which unlocked his highest quality performance. Finally, he used a flanking strategy to engage his enemy.
Let’s break down each piece.
Attacking a Resource via the Least Competitive Channel
This idea is written into so many different places Tools of Titans and other texts of its genre. It is also written in the how-to’s of investing, entrepreneurial, athletics, and even survival. If you need something, it would be great to be the first to the table. Or at least get their before the crowd. Those who safely push for the outer edge of discovery often find the most sustainable access to success. By staying in a Growth Mindset and pushing toward discovery you guarantee a steady stream of fresh new resources and a lifestyle the promotes wellness. If done responsibly.
That’s easy to say but can be hard to do. The first step is a leap of faith. You have to assume the channel is there but that you cannot yet see it. If you did see it, so could others. You are on a quest of discovery. You are trying to explore your blind spot. Potentially an entire industry’s blind spot. To find it you first have to believe it is there even if you don’t have proof.
Once you find that blind spot, you have to be willing to step in and try it on. It won’t be easy, guaranteed, or comfortable. However if you apply the same method of incremental progress you can engage your discovery and minimize risk at the same time.
You also have to be open and excited for the possibility that your channel may be more competitive than you thought or that it does not lead where you want to go. You can absorb failures by having a mindset of blind-spot discovery and a reliable, incremental mechanism to test your discoveries. Failures then become one more channel checked off the list of options, getting you closer and closer to finding the right one.
I have seen this most exemplified in my own experience of starting a private practice.
I’ve never been much of a salesman. I struggle with the requirement or perception of requirement to direct a person’s decision toward something. Even in my practice of medicine I try not to be the decision-maker. It involves too much bias and confounding factors. I value honesty and autonomy. Neither of which are the hallmarks of sales.
Ironically, I was actually a very successful salesman in a former life. Prior to medical school I worked at a student travel agency. This came after I had completed a semester abroad in college and a 5-week solo trip around Europe. With that experience, travel sales then allowed me to help people access something I was already passionate about. I didn’t pitch. I didn’t hide opportunity or influence decisions. I merely provided people with the information.
Something about that exchange worked very well for people. I had a high conversion rate. I sold well in all channels (air, land, and insurance). I didn’t take the most inbound calls in the office. I didn’t have the shortest average call time. I did create a relationship with every person I talked to about travel. Come to think of it, that may have been my least competitive channel- an honest salesman.
In my first year I achieved the top tier of sales achievement. Maybe the first person from their call center to do so in year one. I won an insurance sales competition without changing my on-phone habits. I was selected to represent the company as in-person travel support for the San Diego cast of MTV’s The Real World when the show went to Greece. More important than the numerical achievements, I did this without any compromise of how I think people should be treated.
This approach has carried over my practice of psychiatry. My least competitive channel is my status as a psychiatrist who does therapy and is conservative with medication. I don’t generally push people’s care in any direction unless legally required. I haven’t started someone on a sleep medication once in my practice. I’ve never prescribed an atypical anti-psychotic to someone without a psychotic disorder or Autism. I don’t schedule appointments for less than 30 minutes. In 3 years I have been able to grow to being 100% private practice (average is 5 years). No more side jobs. More importantly I love what I do and am very proud of the way I do it. I found a least crowded channel that was consistent with my values as a person.
This year I found another least crowded channel: Performance Development. I couldn’t find another psychiatrist who is focused on Performance Development. I love it so I had a go. This blog and my work as a consultant for Equinox Fitness’ personal training department is a the yield of that effort.
I have also seen channels hit a dead end. My original dream for the practice was to grow and expand to be a large multi-site organization. The Whole Foods or REI of mental health- quality, value, and a sense of belonging. Over time I came to realize that was a channel I did not want to pursue. The process of expanding my practice did not resonate with my core values. It was maybe the most exciting day of owning my practice when I decided to ignore even the slightest though process regarding expansion. What a gift! Staying put never felt so good.
You will forgive me taking the opportunity to use this space to toot my own horn. I do so not to influence consumers of mental healthcare. Rather I want to illustrate to others who may be aspire to be mental health providers. Mental healthcare is itself a least competitive channel. There is a huge need. However it is not as turn-key as many think. There are niches to be found and you can absolutely do so on your own terms.
I’ve known many trainees and friends who have turned away from a career in mental healthcare due to the assumptions associated with the field. Professional stigmas often. Many assumptions are driven by misrepresentations of our field. “You have to see 20 patients a day,” “you can’t take insurance and make decent money,” “you are a med-pusher,” “all you do all day is work with (insert disorder you don’t think you are good at working with),” “it’s too emotionally taxing.” I haven’t found any of these to be true.
By allowing myself to explore what an ideal mental healthcare practice looked like to me and ignoring the crowded channels, I was able to find an uncrowded channel that was a perfect flow for me. Then I looked deeper in that channel and found another channel within THAT! This really is the greatest job in the world and I hope more people choose to join. We need it!
You don’t know the answer, ask for help.
Tim was able to get an idea of where his least crowded channel would be without having to go through trial and error. He did this by taking advantage of others’ trial and error. His query asked authors what they would dump more money into if they had to launch today. Their answer was blog authors. His resulting actions were game-changing. Without using an advisory board, by trying to figure it out on his own, he likely would not have found this information. The fact that these authors didn’t think to maximize bloggers indicates it wasn’t a common sense answer.
The use of an advisory board is one of the most consistent recommendations I’ve seen across personal and professional development texts. Tools of Titans, The Art of War, Good to Great, Think and Grow Rich are the first places I heard of it. The advice is written elsewhere: parenting, education, apprenticeship learning models, athletic coaching, and even psychotherapy. When people want to achieve something we are much more likely to do so in league with others who can quickly fill in the gaps with high-quality information.
I have always felt the best illustration of this was from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. He uses the story of Henry Ford to explain his concept of the Mastermind Group. Ford was not a businessman. He was a tinkerer with a skill for machines. Yet he would go on to contribute some of the most significant innovations in business. He maximized the assembly line. He created what we now know as the weekend when he moved to a 40 hour work week. His product was getting the best out of people and solving problems.
Ford’s method focused on getting help from people who were better than him at certain disciplines. He would hold meetings with these people regularly to get their counsel. In this way, their collective knowledge represented more expertise than any one person could ever achieve through education or experience. As I said, this idea tends to be written into every how-to for running a business or achieving goals. By using a mastermind group you can guarantee that if an idea is to be found, a problem solved, or a skill to be learned you will have access to it. I will repeat:
Every great person or company who consistently operate at a high level utilitize the mastermind group concept in one way or another. Every single one.
You need to figure out how to do this. Now.
I know what you’re saying “if everyone does this, why haven’t I heard of it. If something this a valuable exists the whole world would be using it. It would be part of human culture like eating food.” Yes, I agree. You would think.
However, the use of a mastermind group requires one very huge step that most people are not good at- humbleness. To use a mastermind group effectively you, the group leader, must be present with the idea that you are flawed. You are not good at something. You will intentionally identify another person as being better than you at something. That idea is so foreign we tend to only engage it in compulsory relationships- parents, teachers, bosses, and the legal system.
The largest swath of people will never know intentional advisory relationships in their lives. Some will identify a mentor. Some have a friend who plays this role. Maybe even a romantic partner. However despite our social nature, our culture does not explicitly emphasize collaborative models at this point.
Set your initial goals at an achievable level
Tim’s goal was to go to the Seagate lounge and just talk to people. He wasn’t there to pitch. He wasn’t there to sell his book. In fact in a different part of the book he discusses that he had an exact method to his conversations: play dumb and ask questions (more Art of War), if the opportunity presents then put a minimal amount of information out there, only provide more to people who have asked for it.
The story really is beautiful on so many psychological levels. It’s a similar story to how we do higher level psychotherapy. We start with our initial evaluation which is effectively an hour or more of all questions. Then over the course of therapy we utilize a subtle technique called interpretation. Interpretations at their best are intentionally vague, broad statements designed to speak to one’s subconscious and avoid their Ego security system. I can say to someone “you keep messing up all your relationships, it’s not their fault it’s yours” or I can wait until we are talking about losing our car keys and discovering they were always in our hand to say “it can be amazing how often the solution to a problem was in our grasp the whole time but a frantic state keeps us blind to our role in losing the key.”
Tim is using a similar mechanism. By asking questions he navigates their defense system. Everyone at CES is either there to pitch or be pitched. By asking questions he is different. He set his goal low and achievable by telling himself he wouldn’t pitch. The pressure was off. He also set a goal not to start a pitch the second someone asked. Instead decided that when someone inevitably asked him about himself he would simply respond “I’m writing a book”. Not “I’m trying to sell a book.” This uses the same subtle technique of whispering a suggestion. In this model, Tim only ends up pitching to people who have completed three levels of engagement. 1. They let him in on the conversation 2. They asked him about himself 3. They asked him about his book. He doesn’t actually pitch anyone. Effectively they approach him.
The net risk:reward assessment on this gets totally flipped. He has very little to lose from a motivation standpoint. His goal is simple and statistically specific (as opposed to being statistically sensitive). He can easily meet his goal of staying true to his mechanism. The goal isn’t about any result other than his own discipline. Very high yield.
Attack Your Enemy’s Flank
One more check mark in the “you should do this” category: this plan is an indirect, flanking technique as recommended in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. In addition to recommending having advisors, he speaks directly to the importance of spies and attacking enemies weakness. Tim asking other authors their advice allowed him to spy on the publishing industry and understand their weakness. That is what a least crowded channel is. It is the undefended supply line. It is the outpost holding a strategic position that is undermanned. It is the spot in the enemy’s front line held by a battalion with an ineffective leader. Knowing this information is not only valuable but essential to ever achieve victory. Sun Tzu says.
One of the hardest aspects of any endeavor is the competition with other people. By rule of statistical probability, if you have an idea so has someone else. In that setting, the ones who succeed tend to be good at succeeding. They know methods and tactics to getting ahead of the pack. Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. He was at best the 23rd. Michael Jordan isn’t the greatest basketball player of all time. He is the best person to play in the NBA. Muhammed Ali isn’t the greatest fighter of all time. He’s the best professional boxer. However all these people are historic icons due to their ability to also be elite in managing the complexities that others could not.
Using the least crowded channel is the type of strategy used by people who consistently operate at a high level. When looking at people like Edison, Jordan or Ali our minds don’t contemplate that idea. We only see “they were born with a gift”. They weren’t. They learned it and you can too.