In Works (2002), Édouard Levé published a book consisting solely of a list of 533 ideas for new artworks, mostly conceptual. (Read the Guardian review.)
Levé followed through on a small handful of these ideas, including Pornographie (2002), which poses fully-clothed models as if they were adult film actors; and Amérique (2006), a collection of photographs taken in American towns named after Florence, Berlin, Oxford and other foreign cities.
Levé’s final book was a novel written using second-person narration, Suicide (2008), which he sent to his publisher ten days before hanging himself at the age of 42. Given our retrospective knowledge of the author, the apparent joie de vivre of Levé’s Works has more to say about sadness and ennui than any tearjerker memoir.
Levé took his ideas too seriously. He believed his worst idea to be his best idea, and he falsely believed it to be a better idea than any he may have devised in the future.Excerpt from essay sent to mailing list subscribers (2016)
Seven years ago, inspired by the example of Works, I compiled a list of 100 ideas culled from my journals. By now, I could probably add hundreds more. But these days, I’m working on focus.
In The Business of Expertise (2018), David C. Baker outlines how expertise results from a narrow sphere of focus. By taking on similar opportunities, you begin to notice patterns that you can develop in your speaking, writing, and advising. By discovering and articulating patterns within your focus area, you develop expertise.
And how do you get a focus? By choosing your Positioning.
About once per decade, make a big positioning decision, make it public, and stick to it. Your positioning can be a specific vertical industry (e.g. consumer lending) or a horizontal practice area (e.g. demographic marketing) but whatever you choose should have the right balance between clients and competitors.
Recap: Expertise <- [Pattern Matching] <- Focus <- Positioning
What is your Qu’est-ce que c’est?
“Put down your unmet goals like a dear family dog.”David C. Baker
Baker would just love Levé, n’est-ce pas vrai?
Does a Works collection represent a place where ideas go to die, or is it a Pet Sematary from which they revive when you least expect it?
Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll keep the grass mowed and the flowers fresh.
“Quit protecting what you learned in the past and spend that energy on new things right now.”David C. Baker
In context, here’s what Baker means by this quote:
- Your value as an expert advisor is having strong points of view related to your positioning.
- Developing strong points of view requires work, research, and writing.
- If it’s not related to your positioning, don’t work on it, don’t research it, and don’t write about it.
- “Spend that energy on new things” means looking at new things within your prescribed area of focus.
Don’t, say, jump into a completely different field of study every week.
If you’ve been following the My Yale Years project of this blog, I’ve been making the rounds in the boneyard of what I’ve learned and buried over the past nine years watching online lectures. Every week a different course, a different reading list, a different mindset. I’m here reciting elegies, leaving flowers, recalling fond memories. And in some cases, I pull out the shovel and start digging.
Note that my writing is not derived from or based on the content of the lectures themselves. Instead, I’m using the course topics as convenient compass points for situating my own essays and creative projects along related themes, including tangential posts such as this one ruminating about the contrast between polar opposites: a French idea collector and an American expert on the marketing of expertise. It’s a long way from the syllabus for France Since 1871, but I’m not doing this for a grade.
I’m blogging as the culmination of a decade-long endeavor for self-improvement, which began soon after completing a similar decade-long project earning a Master’s in Liberal Arts with concentration in Foreign Literature and Culture from Harvard Extension School (ALM 2012).
It’s the Harvard vs. Yale game, and it’s playing in my head.
That’s 20 years of developing, dare I say it, expertise.
But expertise in what?
The 40+ Open Yale Courses add up to a general studies degree without a declared major.
At Harvard, rather than concentrate on the literature and language of a single country, I took a collection of courses ranging from Chinese history to Arabic fiction to Russian masterworks to the European Middle Ages. I did my best to tie it all together with my thesis, and so sure, if you like, you can call me an expert on literary talking dogs.
My positioning, whatever it is, relates to always being willing to learn something new, to experience the first day of class over and over again, to ignore the advice that says that I should play it safe within a single focus area.
That positioning compels me to focus on intellectual orienteering, situating the unknown within the known, establishing relationships with larger contexts, discovering and articulating patterns. This pattern-matching ability, as you may recall, is the source of expertise.
I may not be able to out-expert the experts in every field, but I guarantee that wherever I go, I’ll have the intuition, inspiration, and creativity to say something new. That’s not only rarer than expertise, but it’s much more valuable.
Qu’est-ce que c’est?
Oh, before I forget: I also have over 20 years of highly focused experience writing B2B marketing materials on behalf of the largest and most trusted technology, consulting, and media brands serving the financial services industry in banking, insurance, and capital markets. Twenty years on, and I’m just getting warmed up.
My simple value proposition: You provide the experts, and I write up their expertise for you to share with the world. Clean copy, fast turnaround, great results.