John Maxwell New York Times
Agatha Christie’s unique ability to weave intrigue and suspense into a web of excitement explains why she is the bestselling novelist of all time. Though she has been dead more than three decades, she has sold more than four billion copies of her books to date. I first experienced Christie’s work when my high school drama teacher, Joy Bryant, chose The Mousetrap
as our spring play my junior year. The murder mystery holds the honor of being the longest-running show of the modern era.
When the announcement was made, I determined that I would audition for the lead role, Detective Sergeant Trotter. I wanted to be a star, and it seemed the best way for my seventeen-year-old self to realize it. When I arrived for the audition, however, Ms. Bryant threw me a curveball. She asked me also to read for the part of Christopher Wren. Confused and feeling slighted, I reluctantly agreed.
My anticipation mounted for the next two days as I waited for the announcement to be made. When the list was posted, I rushed down the hall and ran my finger down the paper. There it was for all to see: “Ken Coleman—Christopher Wren.” My disappointment was difficult to hide.
After class, I waited around to confront Ms. Bryant on her poor casting ability.
“I know you wanted the lead role,” she said. “But you are perfect for Wren. No one in this school can play him like you can, and you will notice, if you read the script, that he steals the show. Just trust me.”
The Oscar-nominated actress Diane Lane answers a question on breaking into acting.
Christopher Wren is the mad character that Christie added for comedic relief. I recognized the prominence given to him in the script, but I didn’t care what he was. I was only concerned with what he wasn’t: the lead. After sulking and mulling for several days, I decided to give the role my best.
No one perhaps has spoken more about playing the role you were meant to play than John Maxwell. He is a New York Times
bestselling author of cornerstone leadership books, including Developing the Leader Within You, Make Today Count
, and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
. His mission in life is to equip people to identify their strengths and maximize their effectiveness as influencers. When I had the opportunity to ask him one question, I decided to frame it around the subject of niche.
KC: My father said to me over and over as a kid, “Find your niche and fill it.” We all have unique talents and strengths, yet so many never find their niche. How do we find it?
JM: My father helped us a lot too. He was very committed to his gifts and used them well. As we grew up, he basically told us the same thing: “Find the one thing you do well, and do it. You are not able to do twenty things well, so find the one thing that you do well.” So when people come to me about their niche, I always ask them two questions. One is “What are you passionate about?” And number two is “What are you good at?”
I have known a lot of people who are very passionate about things they are not good at. So the good news is they really loved what they were doing, and the bad news was that they were not any good at it.
I have known people who were very good at something, but they were not passionate about it. So the good news was that they were really good at it, and the bad news is they could not stick with it. They could not even stay in their sweet spot, because they did not have the passion for it. So it is not either/or, it is both/and.
Once you can answer, “What am I passionate about?” and “What am I good at?” you can marry those two things. Then you have the energy to take you over the long haul to be the person that you really want to be. When people are doing one thing but
would like to go do something else, my whole advice is then “Quit but-ing and start going.”
My advice to a lot of people when they come to me and say, “What do you think I ought to do? I am getting worn out with this” is “Quit.” And then they will say, “What do you mean, quit?” I say again, “Quit. You have to stop doing what you are doing today if it is not effective, or you do not enjoy it, to be able to start doing what you want to do, tomorrow.” That takes a little bit of security, but I do think that is the key.
You really have to love what you do. I cannot imagine anybody, every day, going to work just because he has to go to work, and just kind of filling in the day with something he does not love. People who do not love what they are doing are Cape Canaveral people: ten, nine, eight, seven, six. . . . They are counting down before they can quit work. They are counting down before they can stop that relationship. I say, “You ought to be counting up, not counting down. You ought to be going up.” So put your passions and your gifts together, and then you have found something.
Maxwell gives us a simple but profound equation: passions + gifts = niche. Some people label this “calling,” but the moniker doesn’t matter as much as the principle. Too many people live lives of desperation and dissatisfaction, but we all possess the road map for the way out of that gloomy town.
When you operate outside your niche, you’ll end up being one of two types of people. First, you may become a person who is good at his job but not passionate about it. This is, for example, the corporate marketing executive who is talented at crafting a message and knows the company’s needs well. He makes a great living and has a beautiful office atop a tall tower. But he is wasting away.
My friend was a lead Web designer for a large corporation, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He was great at his job, but he needed a client he could believe in. One day, he simply quit his job and moved to Maui, where he now designs small websites for nonprofits. You may be working a nine-to-five in accounting or customer care or insurance sales, but your heart desires to go work with special-needs kids. Like Maxwell, I’d tell you, “Go work with special-needs children.”
The second type of person is passionate about his job but not good at it. You see him on reality talent shows every day. He loves to sing, but he doesn’t have the talent to carry it. You wince when confusion washes over his face after he’s told he is “pitchy.” Lack of talent is only a symptom; the real problem is a failure to identify his niche. You won’t be your happiest or most effective until you can find a place where you are both
passionate and talented.
I’d add another subcategory to Maxwell’s list. This is a person who has identified both his passions and his gifts but lacks the backbone to make a change. Once we locate our niche, we need the courage and discipline to pursue it. If you find and fill your niche, you’ll never “work” another day in your life.
Flashback to opening night of The Mousetrap
. The cast is pacing backstage, driven by our collective nervousness. We have two back-to-back shows, and both are sold out. When I take the stage, I feel a surge of another person in my veins. I deliver my lines, not as Ken but as Christopher Wren. As Ms. Bryant predicted, I steal the show and earn a roar of applause at the end of each performance.
Driving home that night, I realized that Ms. Bryant had been teaching me about more than just acting. She was instructing me on niche: you need to know who you are, and you need to play your role to the best of your ability. My drama teacher knew me better than I knew myself, and she handed me a valuable life lesson that I will teach my three kids.
The spotlight now turns to you. Have you found your niche, and are you filling it? If not, what are you going to do about it?
Play the role that only you can, the one you were born for. If you marry your passions and gifts, when the curtain closes and you wait for a response, you’ll find you’ve done more for the audience than you ever imagined you could.