Oral History of Niche Businesses

I work in a niche industry. I’ve gotten used to, say, wondering through the business section of a bookstore and seeing nothing particularly relevant to my work in a specific way.

Now, I know I’m in a niche business because nobody’s really ever heard of my business, but what I’m wondering is whether everyone shares this feeling when walking through the business books section.

The economy is a pretty specialized place; doesn’t it have to be? It’s so easy for the best to scale up that most people are driven to the extremes. Farmers become labourers become shopkeepers become Walmart-etteers, back-office administrators, bloggers and frustrated actors. And welfare jockeys, of course.

Ok, so there’s a greater disparity of experience. It hasn’t translated into very much diversity in business books, though.

Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson)  wouldn’t feel out of place with how business knowledge is transferred these days: orally, experientially, heavy with context, narrative and ‘you had to be there’ jokes.  That’s because most of what we do these days is professional socializing: the main difference between industries is the jargon.

Business books publishers get this and so don’t bother with the jargon. They cut straight to it and talk about leadership, networking, social intelligence, reading others, etc. The problem is that writing strips away too much context; social education cannot be scaled.

Not to say you can’t learn from words on a page. It’s just that there’s a lot to learn and supply is hard to find: there are only a few authors in any generation that can rise above the horde of hacks dashing themselves against the wall of literary achievement. It gets easier with interaction and some human touch, but that scales poorly too. At its worst (and it often is) the lecture is little different than reading a book. It takes a helluva teacher to really connect with a large group.

So we rely on mentor relationships to build human capital. But what if you pulled the short straw and your mentor(s) suck?

Well, this isn’t in keeping with the ‘you can do anything’ narratives of our society, but you’re just screwed.


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