You Are Not A Commodity: On Knowing Your Niche

2010 July 6

There is a scene in the remake of Grey Gardens where Big Edie refers to Little Edie (her daughter) as an “acquired taste.”  It’s meant to be contemptuous and passive-aggressively manipulative and controlling (the hallmark of their dysfunctional relationship), but it gets at the heart of the fear that so many of us secretly harbor – that we’re too whatever (weird, homely, crazy, damaged, inadequate, poor, etc.) to find happiness, acceptance and fulfillment in our romantic and working lives, that we’re too far to either end of the bell curve to be saved.

Photo by carianoff

But, really,  what’s wrong with being an acquired taste? Tofu, kombucha, absinthe and sauerkraut are acquired tastes and if you don’t like ’em, well, more for those of us who do (NB: I’ve never actually tried absinthe). Unfortunately, we’ve been socialized to believe or convinced ourselves that our value is in broad-scale appeal. We should be liked and desired by all, with bonus points for winning over those who would ordinarily remain immune to our professional or personal charms (why else would the ability to sell ice to the Eskimos be touted as a killer quality?). But it’s a fool’s errand. You can’t please all of the people (the potential partners, employers, friends, coworkers) all of the time and attempting to mass market yourself gets downright exhausting. Face it, we can’t all be Coca Cola, can we? And even if we could, there’d always be folks who’d prefer Faygo.

So what’s the alternative? It’s realizing that being an acquired taste is not only the reality, but it’s a pretty palatable one at that. Your prospects aren’t nearly as dim as they seem should you choose to specialize. It’s a big ol’ world and even if 99.9% of the planet’s population find you completely unattractive or undesirable, that would still leave 6 800 000  souls interested in getting all up in your space in a platonic or romantic way. Hell, even if you appealed to only 0.01% of global citizens, that would be 680 000 potential pals or mates (you can split it 50/50 if the gender binary is your deal). Those are numbers that would cause Wilt Chamberlain to weep from exhaustion.

Being an acquired taste and having acquired tastes of your own involves finding a match between what you want and which markets (be they of the labor or dating pool variety) are most likely to want you. You don’t pull up to the McDonald’s drive-thru and assume you can order filet mignon, do you? So why would you expect that a cubicle job would satisfy you if you love being outdoors and do your best work between 2:00 and 11:00 PM? Or that the woman giving you the eye in the Starbucks line would be totally open and supportive of your interest in cross dressing? Maybe she is, but instead of pinning your hopes on stumbling across a kindred soul within the leagues of the population at large, isn’t it so much more efficient to target the contexts, fora, subcultures and social spaces most likely to feature collections of simpatico individuals? Beats the hell out of bemoaning the fact that the dude you gave your number to at a NASCAR race has never heard of Noam Chomsky and prefers his beer domestic thankyouverymuch or that BYU’s grooming standards are putting a serious crimp in your plan to grow some righteous mutton chops.

People and jobs can defy your expectations and their contexts, absolutely, but if you’re going to be purposive about marketing yourself professionally and personally (and maybe that’s not your bag, fair enough), you’ll need to commit to a target market and focus your energy there. If you want something outside of the ordinary, you’re going to have to go outside of the ordinary to get it. No more trying to “make it work” by applying for public sector jobs when the thought of being a bureaucrat makes you hyperventilate at the strictures. No more assuming that your awesomeness or that of the object of your affection can trump fundamental disagreements over core values and life outlooks. No more expecting that you can be all things to all people and tying your worth to a majority vote. No more trying to fit square pegs in round, triangular or octagonal holes for the sake of convenience or duty.

Accept that you’re Rock and Rye and go from there.

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