Take It to the Next Level

No matter what you’re doing, there comes a time when you are going to want to take things up a notch. Maybe it’s your career — even if things are going along fine right now, ultimately you’d like to get a promotion, increase your client base, or reach a larger audience. Or maybe it’s a hobby that you think you’d like to turn into a career.

Getting started with anything can be a struggle, but once you reach a certain level of success, it can be hard to figure out how to make whatever it is you do truly remarkable. The things we do have a way of developing their own inertia, and if we’re not careful, we get carried along in the routine without ever realizing the full potential of what we and our lives can be.

How can you shake things up a bit? What do you have to do to take your project, your career, your product, or your life to the next level? Read on…

1. Build Your Brand

Long-time readers know that I haven’t always been fond of the idea of personal branding. Consider me convinced.

The strength of your brand is how well you are associated with whatever you do. For instance, lifehack.org offers tips and hacks to increase personal productivity. When people hear the word “lifehack”, they think of personal productivity, and when they hear “personal productivity” they think of lifehack. It’s a pretty strong brand. Some people have equally strong brands: when you hear about permission marketing, chances are you think of Seth Godin.

How strongly is your name linked with what you do? What could you do to link them more strongly? Some things to consider:

  • Traditional marketing: Commercials, print ads, billboards, bus wraps — anything that gets your name and message in people’s faces. There are a few problems, though: people might mistake your message, linking you with the wrong speciality; people tend to tune out a lot of advertising as a survival mechanism; people often respond negatively to blatant branding efforts; it’s quite expensive.
  • Blogging: A blog is a conversation with your audience, and can help build up a loyal following that actually cares about what you do.
  • Word-of-mouth: Hard to create and hard to fake, but very effective. Seek out people with a great deal of influence and focus on convincing them of your value. If Seth Godin wrote on his blog that I was the best web writer he knew of, you can bet that within the day my career would be at the next level (maybe the level after that, even!).

2. Build Your Audience

Make a concerted effort to increase the number of people who know about you. Branding is part of this, but it’s not all of it. Give something away, find a new outlet, tell everyone you meet what you do, hand out cards wherever you go, show up at conferences and exhibitions, go to your kids’ classrooms and talk about what you do (and make it interesting enough that they tell their parents). Make yourself useful so people have a compelling reason to pay attention.

3. Increase Your Output

Give your audience, whoever that is, more of what they expect from you. Double, triple, or septuple your output. If you’re a writer, write twice as much. If you’re an actor, get into more plays. If you’re a filmmaker, pledge to produce four short films this year instead of one. Make a painting a day. Aim to top your sales quotas by 50% every month. Do whatever it takes to make yourself more productive. Learn to do whatever you do in half the time — then halve it again. (Read lifehack.org every day, of course!)

4. Improve Your Output

Make whatever you make twice as well. Improve the quality of your work until people have no choice but to stop and gape. Create benchmarks for your output, and aim to top them every single time. Take classes, read book, follow a mentor, practice twice as much, commit yourself to doing what it takes to master your craft or profession.

5. Expand Your Niche

Do what you do now but with a wider outlook. If you write about dogs, start writing about pets in general. If you sell widgets, get into the widget case business. If you’re a musician, learn how to produce. Think about the people whose needs you aren’t meeting, and figure out how to meet them. Don’t try to create a new niche altogether, just look for ways to complement and leverage the work you’re already doing.

6. Restrict Your Niche

Or, do the opposite. Focus yourself on a narrow part of your niche until you’re the only one doing it. If you write about sports, write about baseball, then write about left-handed pitchers. If you make household appliances, make appliances for college students (and then for left-handed college students, maybe). If you paint landscapes, paint trees. If you do marketing consulting, offer viral marketing techniques that work with teenage boys. Become the person people have to go to when they have very specialized needs, because you’re the only one that does it.

7. Cross-Develop

Figure out how to use what you know in an entirely different way. If you coach little leaguers, write a book about coaching. If you offer one-on-one organization coaching, work with a developer to create home organization software. If you’re a TV camera operator, tutor middle schoolers in video podcasting. Find a new way to challenge yourself and put your knowledge to the test — while developing new knowledge and skills.

8. Expand Your Network

Your audience are the people who buy, read, or otherwise use your product; your network are the people that help you make it, market it, or distribute it. Focus on building strong relationships with a variety of people both in and out of your profession. Don’t try to fake it — strong relationships have to be genuine or they won’t last. Join a social networking site like LinkedIn and work it like mad. Go to trade shows, conferences, and exhibitions and talk to every exhibitor and every presenter. Make a list of 20 people in your field you want to know and email them introductions. Build relationships with your 10 best clients. Build relationships with someone from your top competitors (if that’s legal). Join a professional organization and run for an office.

Obviously these are not all exclusive — you can and sometimes have to do more than one at the same time. And they’re not all necessary — some even contradict others. But all of them shake up your routines and make people pay attention to you, whether those people are potential clients, potential customers, or potential partners.

None of these are keys to instant success. All of them require hard work and time to show any effect. If you’re ready to take it to the next level — and you’re ready to put in the work and commitment that entails — then go through the list and ask yourself how each item could help get you there.

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