The other day, a friend posted a photo on Facebook that made me snort out loud. It was a sign advertising the offerings of a roadside business. It read: Bait & Tackle, Liquor Store, Apartment for Rent, Family Dining. All Under One Roof!

Humor value aside, I believe that sign illustrates an important point we often lose sight of: You can’t be all things to all people. Those who try to be usually end up frustrated, with their energy depleted and their efforts ineffective. If you want to sell bait, be a bait shop; if you want to serve meals, be a restaurant. As they say in today’s buzz-wordy business parlance, “Don’t dilute your brand.”

True, diversifying to broaden your market appeal can increase your stability, but it’s important to know when to say when. Diversifying too far beyond your core identity or trying to spread your message across widely disparate audiences usually backfires. Your mission becomes muddled and your market, undistinguished. Think of the restaurant that boasts 20 different “specialties.” It’s unlikely there is anything very special about any of them. In trying to serve everyone in general, we often end up serving no one in particular.

This principle applies not only to business, but to life.  As a natural born pleaser, I have had a particularly hard time learning this lesson.  Or to be more accurate, continuing to learn this lesson, as I need a refresher course just about every day.  I truly enjoy serving others…as many others as possible…as often as possible. Now, before you nominate me for Humanitarian of the Year, let me say that I enjoy being served just as much—massage gift certificates may be emailed directly to my Inbox.

Seriously, though, I derive great satisfaction from making other people happy and don’t mind going out of my way to do so. Wanting to please others is an admirable trait, but taken to an extreme, it not only delays me from reaching my own goals, it is not always the best course of action for those I’m trying to serve. Blinded by the immediate and seemingly urgent need someone has, I can lose sight of the bigger picture and my defined role in it. I sometimes think if I were about to undergo open heart surgery and overheard the surgeon mention that he’d forgotten to mail a letter, I would jump off the table and run it to the post office for him.  A wise choice? Well, let’s see—the letter would get mailed, but I would put my life in mortal danger as well as squander time, money and valuable medical resources in the process. To say nothing of the mental trauma inflicted on an unwitting public at the sight of a middle-aged, semi-anesthetized woman running down the street with her hospital gown flapping open.

How could a routine, albeit hypothetical, heart surgery turn into such a fiasco? Simply put, by my failure to clearly define and understand my identity. I was a surgical patient, not a mailman. My mission as a surgical patient was to lie on the operating table, not to run to the post office. I lost sight of my identity; I tried instead to be whatever was needed at the moment and complete chaos resulted. The same thing happens in our business and personal lives when we are unclear in our own minds about what our core identity is and what our mission is. Once we are very clear about those two fundamentals, decisions become much easier to make. Our identity and mission will necessarily dictate some actions and preclude others. When in doubt, we need to ask ourselves these questions: Who am I; what business am I about; and, given those answers, what action will best serve me as well as others.

Our efforts and energies will then be focused, not scattered, and we will begin to build the kinds of strong, meaningful relationships that inspire confidence in others and contribute to our success.

And someday when the red-hot bait & tackle/fine dining combo concept has cooled off, I already have a great idea for next big thing—a full-service operating room with a drive thru mail window. Now, that’s a place worth tying up your hospital gown for!

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