How to Find Your Niche in Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What should you stick with, and what should you quit? Are you barking up the wrong tree when it comes to your niche?

Working hard is important. But, if you’re working hard on the wrong thing, you won’t find satisfaction and true success. To succeed, you must stick to some things but quit others. The key is figuring out what’s right for you.

Read more to learn how to find your niche in life.

Work Hard at the Right Things

Conventional advice around grit—our ability to persevere through setbacks and continue working towards long-term goals over years or even decades—often contradicts itself. As Eric Barker notes, we tend to believe that grit is essential to success; however, we also warn each other about clinging to our dreams for too long—like the man who’s convinced he can become a pro basketballer long after his joints have started to wear away. So, which is it?

(Shortform note: Experts differ on what grit actually is. Some psychologists contend that grit is the same as conscientiousness, the tendency to be responsible, organized, persistent, goal-oriented, and self-controlled. However, psychologist Angela Duckworth, who popularized the term “grit,” argues that it differs from conscientiousness because it also incorporates passion—the adherence to high-level, long-term goals—rather than a short-term commitment to goals.)

Barker argues that this isn’t an either/or question. Rather, he contends that, if you want to succeed, you have to work hard at the right things—which means you have to stick to some things but quit others. In general, grit is essential to success: It’s associated with greater optimism and happiness. But you can find the time you need to consistently work on your long-term goals—in other words, to display grit—only if you prioritize the endeavors that matter. And to do that, you must stop—or quit—the endeavors that don’t. You must learn how to find your niche in life.

How Your Ego Stops You From Quitting Things

In Ego Is the Enemy, philosopher Ryan Holiday posits that we often struggle to quit the wrong things in our careers due to the sunk cost fallacy: We’ve invested time, energy, and money into a project (sunk costs), so instead of admitting that those costs are irretrievable, we continue to throw good money after bad trying to make those costs mean something. Holiday contends that we fall victim to this fallacy because our egos see career failures as personal failures and want to fight these failures at all costs. 

However, to display grit in the right endeavors and achieve happiness, you must be willing to admit your losses and move past them. To do so, Holiday recommends that you face each failure, determine honestly whether your errors are redeemable, and ask yourself whether it’s worth continuing or if you should move on to fight another battle.

How to Find Your Niche

So, you now know that you have to stick to the endeavors that matter—but how do you discover what those are? What are the long-term goals that you want to fight for? If you have no idea, Barker recommends performing small experiments: Test out things you’re interested in to see if you want to pursue them in the long term. For example, if you dream of opening a café, get a part-time job at one to see if it’s right for you. 

(Shortform note: In Designing Your Life, Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans also recommend testing out things you’re interested in to see if you want to pursue them in the long term. Like Barker, they recommend performing small experiments. But they add that you should conduct interviews with people who already do the thing you want to do. You can thus learn the pros and cons of their choices in detail and evaluate whether their path is for you.)

Once something piques your interest, try the WOOP method: Define your wish, envision the ideal outcome, review what obstacles you might encounter, and plan how you’ll overcome them. Research indicates that, if your wish is achievable, doing this mental exercise will inspire you—so you should focus your efforts on whatever wish inspires you the most.

(Shortform note: Barker focuses on how using the WOOP method can help you determine what to work on. But other experts explain that using the WOOP method can re-inspire you to work on goals you’ve already decided on but are having trouble actually doing. This is because the method combines two proven goal-setting techniques: mental contrasting, in which you visualize both your desired future and your current reality, and setting implementation intentions, which you do by clearly stating, “If X happens, I’ll do Y.”)

How to Find Your Niche in Life

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Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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