Play In Your Sweet Spot

You’ll get a kick out of this.

About once a month, I receive a phone call from someone in the food services industry – usually the owner of a restaurant – who wants to know if I can come over and fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment.

It’s typically regarding a broken oven, but I’ve had calls for grills, frialators and walk-in refrigerators too.

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Why food services people? Well, for reasons that remain a mystery, my company is erroneously listed on a number of yellow pages directories as being in the “Restaurant Equipment Repair Services” business.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining.

For one thing, I take it as a tribute to my marketing panache that on these web sites, my fictitious restaurant repair business is somehow listed ahead of several apparently legitimate concerns.

Second, I have to admit that those restaurant-related calls are kind of an amusing distraction. Sometimes, in fact, when I’m feeling a little bit impish, I’m tempted to play along and begin troubleshooting the problem over the phone.

I envision asking an assortment of increasingly specific but nonetheless meaningless questions, things like, “What percent of your pizzas are pepperoni?,” or “By any chance, is your chef left-handed?”

In the extreme, I confess that I’ve even wondered to myself if I should just grab my toolbelt, drive over to the establishment in question, and start poking around. Who knows, maybe with a few hours of web surfing before I leave and a little bit of luck, I might discover an easy fix.

Ok, I know, pretty ridiculous.

Fun to talk about, but we all know that if this were to play out in real life, it would be a disaster. The restaurant would be unhappy with the results. I’d be stressed about the lousy job I was doing and the time it was taking. I might have a client, but I wouldn’t have a profession.

I hope you’ve guessed where I’m going with this.

Because while my made up scenario is extreme, in principle, it’s not that far off from what a lot of professional service providers do: offering services they’re not that good at to prospects whose only client qualification is “money in hand.”

Ouch. If you ask me, that situation feels about as sustainable and comfortable as sitting on a recently repaired commercial grill.

So I have a better idea. What if you were to:

  1. Spend some time figuring out what you’re really good at. Not the package and price of what you sell (that happens later). I mean the skills, interests and natural gifts that really (truly) set you apart.

    Maybe you have a knack for simplifying data.

    Maybe you have an ability to see what other people can’t see.

    Maybe you’re unmatched when it comes to writing useful, witty, short format business communications (the kind that are so good, people hardly notice your odd creepiness).

    The point is, step one is taking the time to put your finger on whatever it is that you’re the master of.

  1. Step two is only doing step one.

Pretty scary, I know. After all, you need more work. So right now, until you “get on track,” you’re willing to do anything that comes your way – even if what comes your way is a guy with a broken pizza oven.

The problem is, that approach is a self-perpetuating distraction. Doing hard, unfulfilling work for people who are only marginally satisfied (sometimes referred to as “a job”) is more than just drudgery … it keeps you from ever getting to where you want to be.

Instead, I’m suggesting you stop doing work that you are simply capable of and focus on the opposite, equally self-perpetuating side of the equation, by doing…

… work that involves projects you love.

… work that pays you good money for ease instead of effort.

… work that impresses clients to the point where they think you’re one of a kind and quite possibly magical.

Where do you find that work? It lives in #1 above.

The room filled with all the things you want as a solo professional – happy clients, personal fulfillment, plenty of money, a feeling of having found your calling – is behind the door called “Only do things you’re obscenely good at.

Here’s the bottom line. One of the many great things about working solo is that you get to choose what you do … and what you don’t do.

But I don’t mean someday, I mean right now.

Because in my experience, the freedom to choose isn’t the reward for one day becoming “successful.” One day becoming successful is the result of choosing freely every day.

22 thoughts on “Play In Your Sweet Spot

  1. Anne

    This is very timely since this week I turned down some work. Even though I knew it was the right decision, it sure was hard to do. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a client is steer them to another professional who does have the skills needed. And you have to believe that the “pass it on” attitude someday comes back to you. Thanks for your reminder.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Yes, it’s definitely hard to do. I think with clients who know you, the risk of not turning it down is even higher, since a mediocre job affects the way they view all your work. Thanks for writing, Anne!

  2. Phil Winn

    I have discovered that I am good at taking an idea (not nececessarly my own idea) and making it work. I haven’t done this as an entrepeneur but rather on a staff of a large organization. To that end I am not a solo professional although I wouldn’t be afraid to set out on my own if it were required. At 66 years old. The leadership and organizational gifts I developed in the military have helped immensely. Like someone once said ” When your job becomes your passion you’ll never work another day in your life!”

  3. Janet

    Michael your newsletter was so funny and brought back memories. A few years back our phone was ringing off the hook and I mean OFF the hook. We kept getting calls asking us to send CD’s. It was wicked. We would hang up and soon as we put it down another call.

    What happened was somehow a TV commercial in New York had our phone number. We kept saying you have the wrong number we sell houses not CD’s. You would be surprised how many got angry with us calling it a scam.

    At first we laughed but with the 6 hours time difference really it got pretty old.

    Thanks for the memories!

    With Aloha

  4. Don

    I couldn’t agree more, Michael! I sometimes wonder if I should learn more about layout and design and start offering these services in addition to freelance writing. Or maybe PR services. But why bother? I’m a really good financial and business writer, I’ve got a great niche here and I really like doing it! And I know plenty of people who do these things well who I can partner with. I’ve got a tight “niche within a niche” as a financial and business writer and staying focused here is really paying off with clients who need this specialty and are willing to pay for it!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Yes! It’s an unbelievably virtuous cycle — the work is easier and more enjoyable, the clients are happier and the results are better. So they pay you more and send more people your way. Glad you’re seeing such good results, Don!

  5. Tina Bemis

    I tried. I really did. I TOLD them I was no good at it, and I told them I had already done enough volunteering for the organization, that I didn’t need to also help man the booth at the trade show this week. But then the email came from THE PRESIDENT saying we all had an obligation to help, blah, blah, blah. So I put in my hour and hated every minute of it. I actually did a fairly decent job of faking my way thru it (I am a retailer, after all) but the amount of whining I did about it after the fact will probably insure I don’t ever have to do it again. I told them I was VERY GOOD at the other part of this volunteer gig, and had spent dozens of hours on it, and to please let me continue to only do what I do best.

  6. Michael Perry

    Wow, how did I find this? This guy is right on the money and it could not have come at a better time. All week I have been sitting around thinking about how I was wasting my time and somewhat feeling sorry for myself in self pitty, until I ran into Corissa at contant contact. I guess she is the one that posted this on my face book page. Well I have to say thank you for the post and can’t wait for next weeks. This is very well put together and I plan to pass it on. I hope that someone can direct me in the direction of previous post, (oh sorry I see you were on top of you game and didn’t leave that link out) I just didn’t read the entire page.

    Love it!

    Very Nice Michael Katz

  7. Kelsey McCormick

    HI! Loved this! Made me feel good reading it…it’s so true. It’s taken me 4 years of my business to learn that it’s OK to say no (to projects that is!). I have turned down a few projects over the last year that really weren’t our “bread and butter.” We could have done the work…by involving other parties and making things really complicated. And typically, that’s what I would have done. BUT—I’ve learned that it’s not worth it. We now stay much mroe FOCUSED. And when a request comes in that we don’t want, we steer them to a partner or colleague that does 🙂

    Feels much better! Thanks Michael! You’re always so true! 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Kelsey. I often find as well that right after I turn something down, something even better and on target comes in. Coincidence?!?? (no such thing!)

  8. Roger Magalhaes

    Love your quote:

    ‘Because in my experience, the freedom to choose isn’t the reward for one day becoming “successful.” One day becoming successful is the result of choosing freely every day. ‘


  9. Michael Perry

    This is refreshing to come on here and read what other like minded people are saying about your work Michael. Thank you for your kind words that you sent, and I still stand by what I said in the email that you should become a motivational speaker, but I guess if you did that you would not be doing what it is that is making you happy.

    Phil Winn sounds a lot like myself, where I also do better with putting other peoples ideals together then my own. Sometimes I do a pretty good job at putting my own together, but I found out that the key to making it a success is the team that you put around that project, and understanding that the (you) the person that started it are only 1 piece of the bigger picture and if you don’t do your role well then the rest of the project will only be as good or strong as it’s weakest link.


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Good points, Michael. And I agree, coming here for the “after party” to see what other people say, has become my favorite part of publishing the newsletter!

  10. Emma Thomas-McGinnis

    I’ve heard this kind of advice before, but I really, really think you said it best! I’m also really trying to take this advice, but it’s not easy. Thank you for the encouraging article!!

    One thing that I think would make it easier to specialize is to eliminate the big broad profession term. If I call myself a graphic designer, people’s minds start thinking up all the many, many things they know graphic designers to do. Same could probably be said for coaches or salespeople, etc. It would be better to name that skill that is mine or the that problem I solve.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Emma, I find a two-part approach works well. So when people ask you what you do, you could say, “I’m a graphic designer. I specialize in designing wine labels” (or whatever).
      The first sentence gives them a sense of what “species” you are and the second pinpoints the niche.


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