I don’t even know how to say this word. Is it nitches or neeches? I know it means a small space used to cram or display something. My sense of this word is that it implies a snug, sometimes hidden, space where just one more thing can be inserted, or fit in. I guess that’s the cramming part of the word, isn’t it? There is quite a bit of difference between cramming and displaying, it seems to me.
Saints and icons of religious figures in general fit into niches in the wall, spaces designed for just such a purpose. Those niches are for display. Got it?
Besides a literal niche, there are figurative niches, some to fit into, some to fill. We find them and make them. Metaphorically.
People venturing out into the world to seek their fortune are sometimes advised to find their own niche. I like that idea. Instead of setting off, willy nilly, in search of easy money and seductive fame, you simply look for a small piece of turf to call your own, in the world’s kaleidoscope of colorful possibilities, its cacophony of vibrant life being lived, its rapidly unfurling tapestry of pattern and
. . . but wait. Perhaps the niche you seek is neither colorful nor romantic, suppose your desired niche is a one-car-length break in the traffic as you are waiting to merge, to get into the flow of things, to join the break-neck, six-lane race to – somewhere.
This is too industrial an image for me to pursue. Rather, I prefer to think of a hermit crab, recently grown so that his shell is constrictive and he must abandon it, searching blindly, in all of his nakedness, for a new shell, a larger shell to inhabit. This is the way of hermit crabs. They come together in colonies so that they may trade up when the need arises, never minding that when they leave their old shell to search out a new one, a larger niche, they are, for those brief moments between shells, naked and vulnerable, in competition with other seeking crabs for the most desirable shell, prey to any predator who may be flying or casting overhead. Their world, as we watch from the side of the tidal pool or plain, is sand and little gullies and shallow basins of water. They do not see the larger world with its other creatures, its myriad possibilities, and like us, they scrabble for survival, frantic to find a safe niche in which to rest, and grow, and search again, if they are fortunate enough to do so.
This niche hunting is serious business. You have to have some sense of self, some idea as to your relative size and how much of a risk you are willing to take, meandering about, looking for a new home, for a niche that fits you.
Before you go tearing off to cram yourself into the first niche you find, it seems to me that you should sit quietly and contemplate what race you want to enter, what destination you want to find, and most of all, what talents and proclivities you possess that will make your journey to your own space a good one, with a chance of success. For instance, assuming you are not a hermit crab, are you a musician who would like to make music for a living? Your chances are slim to slimmer of attaining that goal, I understand from career counselors. Even symphony tuba players at the top of their game must have a day job to sustain their music habit. But just because someone has told you that your journey, the race you want to enter, is a difficult one, that is no reason to quit before you’ve even begun. Be advised, however, you may have chosen to find a niche that is already filled, or one that is too high in the niche pile for you to reach. Many are daunted at this point, and give up their search for their own niche. But what if you don’t merely want to make music, but rather, you must make music?
Some people don’t get to choose their race; some inner sense of who they are, their own personal gyroscope, defines their choices. They were born to make music and that is the only form of self expression they can contemplate. While I can admire the single-minded dimension of their choice, I do not resonate to their particular tuning fork. I am more comfortable with compromise; if you cannot make enough money playing your violin in the subway, your donation basket at your feet, then you must get a job, perhaps find a career, and then play your music for friends, for your own enjoyment, but no one is suggesting you don’t make music. You simply make music when you can. What I am admitting here is that not every person gets to make a living at what he does best, but that doesn’t mean he has to give up his passion: it must simply become an avocation rather than a vocation. Most of us must learn to compromise. Experience and necessity have taught us.
In this same vein, career counselors tell aspiring candidates in the niche race to find a career, a vocation, and save their non-productive inclinations for a hobby niche. They tell them what they want to do is untried, unknown, unadvisable. Perhaps they tell aspirants that the road they have chosen is too difficult, that very few succeed. These counselors, parents, friends, are all trying to be kind. They know, probably from reading statistics on the subject, that few high school songstresses become Broadway stars, only a few gridiron heroes go on to play for the NFL. They are trying to do the advisees a favor, to let them in on one’s of life’s truisms, that many are called, few are chosen. Their version of reality also plants doubts and encourages defeatism, what we call giving up on your dreams before you’ve even begun. How fortunate we are that Leonardo de Vinci did not listen to his career counselor, that Abraham Lincoln did not go into haberdashery at his first political defeat.
It seems to me if you can crawl, you should go for the most desirable vacant shell.
We tell people to find a niche, to fill a niche, but there is another phrase that signifies here. How about the people who go out and make a niche for themselves? This forceful mental image implies that there is little room in the scheme of things for one more space to be created, that all of the known niches are filled and this person must elbow and shove and somehow make room for himself in life’s patchwork quilt, start a new niche. Invent a job no one has ever heard of. See a need and fill it. Listen to your inner voice of possibilities. Don’t listen to the career counselors too avidly.
There are people who do not live in colonies, who do not drive on the freeway of life, who do not care to find a niche that someone else has already shaped and decorated and defined. These people literally make a space where there was none. They follow some inner compass, taking clues from around them and reassembling them in a unique way. About them we sometimes say, after they’ve done the hard work, paid their dues, become successful, “why didn’t I think of that?”
And they are, those who invent and create and march to their own drummer, from what I can ascertain, not in the slightest concerned with how they are perceived. They seem to shake off the myriad voices of reason and discouragement and forge onward, making a path where one has not yet been. They are the people who are forever pulling us onward further into civilization or technology or art, or well, just onward. And they do not seem to be the sort of people who display their accomplishments in a niche on their wall (we are discussing the other shade of meaning of “niche” now, pay attention).
What courage it must take to strike out into unchartered territory, daring to invest all of one’s time and even money into an idea (others may call a scheme, thus lending it a slightly shady aura), risking ridicule, defying odds, courting disaster and believing in one’s self so completely that the risk seems miniscule. Do these people realize the potential for disaster? Are they willing to pay the price when their schemes come to naught? Do they whine as the rest of us would do, if failure should ensue, that life is unfair, that they were bilked? Are they different than you and me? Is that why they surpass us?
You know of someone on this short list of super achievers. An entrepreneur, an author, a CEO, the list is long. Phil Knight. Justin Bieber. Thomas Edison. Jonas Salk. JK Rowling. Oprah Winfrey. Not all super achievers are prominent, so fame and its inducements are not necessarily a defining factor in identifying them.
It seems to me that the niche creators work hard, without exception. They must practice and hone and try and fail and correct and try again. What looks easy to us, is most likely not. They learn. While we are all capable of learning, niche makers most likely readily learn from their own mistakes, and the mistakes of others. They analyze; what went wrong, what went right, don’t they? Perhaps they compile data, internal and external, and they use it to chart a course. Surely they perform these analytical tasks. Or else they are just driven. Or else there is something else.
Ahh, I see it. They are not a part of the herd. The reason they had to “make” a niche is because they were in uncharted territory; there were no niches there and it was incidental, their making a niche at all. They were unafraid to go out, naked, as it were, into the world, into the unknown.
In answer to the question, are the superstars in life different from you and me? Smarter? Wiser? Luckier? I don’t think so.
Another difference between the rock stars and the front row audience might be that they, those mysterious “thems,” seem never to arrive. They may collect statuettes and place them in a niche to honor the achievement, but they didn’t perform or work or invent or create in order to win prizes, for the most part, and they don’t stop doing those things once they have earned recognition. They are constantly rearranging their living room furniture, so to speak, while you and I might find a pleasing floor plan for our stuff and there it sits, year after year. We don’t like change, take risks, as much as those who are our role models and our heroes evidently do. Maybe we are more easily satisfied while our counterparts are always reaching, perfecting, growing.
Most of all, niche creators have an inner confidence. Sometimes it appears to be false confidence, more bravado, but these nichies would rather fail than settle for someone’s else’s version of success, for someone else’s niche.
We’ve been looking at niches cosmically, but anyone who was born into a family with at least one sibling knows that the niche concept works when talking about the family pecking order, too. If the first born is a hellion, the second and subsequent siblings may, finding the hellion niche filled, turn to the student or the peacemaker or some other well-defined niche to fill. Conversely, if the first born is perfect, the following issue may raise Cain with impunity, as “perfection” leaves quite a few niches available. Well, it’s not all this simple, but you get the idea.
There must be books and pamphlets and documentaries about nichery, how to get to yours, how to furnish it, how to get an agent to handle your business so you can continue to just, well, fill your niche.
Ultimately, it’s not the niche itself that interests me, or at least primarily, but the acceptance of the concept that there even are niches and that talented, prepared, purposeful people will succeed in finding theirs. I envision somehow a bee hive’s insides, little chambers, all alike, filled with honey, a Hilton Hotel with an inside glass elevator, so that you can see all of the niches as you ascend or descend, everyone knowing, just born knowing how to do his or her assigned task, and coming together at the end of the day to your own little hexagonal cubicle – but this image is flawed, for as soon as the cubicle in the hive is filled, it is sealed and the bees continue to toil to make more honey, more chambers, more, more, more. Surely we humans are smarter than that; we surely pause to savor our accomplishments, to high five with the other bees.
Most of us are bees. I am a bee, not the most industrious in the hive, but I do my fair share of buzzing and nectar gathering. I believe in the concept of the welfare of the hive and I follow the bee rules, mostly. Sometimes I buzz my own little tune, and once in a while I make a design on the cubicle wall I’m building, but mostly, I just fill my niche and feel pretty darn happy to be productive and among people a lot like me. I have a purpose and a product. I’m not entirely clear in my mind about how I got here, but I have found a comfortable niche and I can rest for a while.
If we are communal creatures, like bees, we are also individuals and we, many of us, give lip service aplenty to “doing our own thing.” Whatever that may be.
The more I think about it, the more I equate the word “niche” with the word “home.” I realize you may think “rut” instead. But then, I’ve thought about the subject so hard that my head aches; I am not a niche-buster, after all. I admire the people in life who get off the freeway, invent a new game so that they can make up the rules, and stand outside of the “shoulds” and the “oughts” and well, do their own thing. While I visit that territory, I do not live there; I’m not one of them. My rebellions are modest and my aspirations are, too. As the world rages on around me, I am content to have my family, a few precious friends, and a sense of structure in my life, ephemeral though it may be. This is my niche.
By the way, if you live in Peoria, you say “nitch,” but if you live in Paree, you say “neesh.”