At some point early in graduate school, I had a powerful conversation with my mentor that I still remember today. In what seemed like an odd conversation starter, he asked me to think about the best known cola companies.
“Who do you think is #1?” he asked me.
“Coca-Cola,” I answered.
“Who do you think is #2?”
“Pepsi,” I answered.
“Who do you think is #3?”
There was a long pause. I wasn’t sure who was #3. Tab? RC? Maybe the Sam’s club generic brand? I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.
He wasn’t sure who the #3 cola brand was either. And that was his point. He told me that when you are thinking about an area of research to go into, you want to be #1 or #2. Otherwise you get lost in the shuffle.
I tried to take his advice to heart when figuring out the direction for my research program. For example, some of my early research focused on marriage counseling, but the field was pretty crowded. There were so many people doing great work in this area already. I wasn’t sure if there would be much room for me.
Humility was different. When I started to do research on humility, there were only a small handful of articles on the topic. The field was wide open, so there was more room for my colleagues and me to do some of the foundational work in this area.
This principle is important for business as well. If you are trying to make a place for yourself, it can be better to venture into a field that is less crowded. Or it can be helpful to specialize in a way to make your product the “go-to” for a more specific market.
Whatever your field or industry, be Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Don’t be Tab.