There’s a Wayne Gretzky quote that’s been repeated in a thousand PowerPoint presentations, and I’ll repeat it here: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” It’s a wonderful thought: Instead of chasing what’s already happened, try to get a step ahead! And hey: Wayne Gretzky once scored 92 goals in an 80-game season, so he must know something about success.
But there’s a flip side to Gretzky’s mantra, and I think it’s just as interesting: Everyone’s trying to skate to where the puck is going, and when they make their move, they usually move in packs.
If you’ve ever seen “Trading Places,” you know what I’m talking about. There’s the famous scene at the end where the Dukes try to corner the market, and everyone else starts following their lead. The other brokers don’t know why the Dukes are doing what they’re doing — they’re just chasing them blindly in hopes that there’s money to be made.
I haven’t been around for very long, but I’ve seen enough to know this: That kind of scene happens all the time. When one big player in an industry makes a move, a bunch of smaller ones often go chasing after them — even if they don’t quite understand why. Most aren’t trying to find the puck; they’re just watching bigger players for clues, and hoping they can beat the giants to the right spot.
And when you have this sort of movement in packs, with everyone trying to be first to the next big thing, it’s incredibly hard to stand out. There are too many competitors.
I’ve always taken a different approach: Watch where everyone’s moving, and then go where they aren’t. Some of the best stuff I’ve worked on (longform journalism, email marketing, responsive design) were spaces that didn’t have any buzz when I got into them. In time, they were all tapped as “the next big thing.”
Not everything I’ve done has turned out quite that well. (I started Stry.us as a replacement to the Associated Press. That, uh, didn’t quite work out.) But it’s been a pretty good policy: When you’re a little fish, don’t go swimming into big ponds. Ignore the hottest trends. Ignore what the experts are saying.
To bring it back to Gretzky: Find pockets of space where you can work, and if you do things right, the puck might even come your way.
That hockey photo comes via Flickr’s Nicole Yeary.