The Bread Plate Lady and the Power of Your “One Big Thing”

Kathleen and I spent the weekend in London, returning from a documentary film project in Eastern Europe.  If we’re in London on a weekend, we always head out to Notting Hill for the Portobello Road street market.  It’s an incredible experience, and even in the dead of winter, it was packed with shoppers looking over the antiques, jewelry, rare books, clothes and other stuff.  Most of the stalls sold a variety of items, but toward the end of the day, we came upon a little old lady in one of the smallest stalls who sold only two things:  antique bread plates and their matching bread knives.  The British apparently call them “bread plates” but we’d call them cutting boards – although they are shaped like a plate and beautifully carved.  Kathleen picked out one from the mid-19th century.  While Kathleen was looking at the lady’s collection of plates, I struck up a conversation.  I discovered the lady was in her 80′s and had been selling antique bread plates for about 47 years.  I asked her:  Why just this one thing?  She replied that 47 years ago she wanted a way to stand out and get noticed.  She realized so many other stalls sold everything imaginable, so she decided she would focus.

She loved cooking, and was fascinated by rare bread plates so she decided that would be her thing.  Now, 47 years later, she’s still at it, and everyone at the market knows her as the “bread plate lady.”   She sells one thing and does it very well.  That very nice lady had never been trained in marketing, and for her, “branding” was something you do to a cow.  But she instinctively understood how to cut through the clutter and get noticed in a crowd of competition.

The question is – are you going to continue trying a little of this and a little of that?  Being unremarkable at a lot of things?  Getting lost of the clutter?  Or are you going to find out what your “one big thing” is, let go of everything else, and pursue that with all your passion?

What’s your answer?  What’s your “one big thing?”

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 13th, 2011 at 7:41 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “The Bread Plate Lady and the Power of Your “One Big Thing””

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  1. Glenda says:

    Think about it Phil,
    She is in her 80′s; still working in an outside market; in the middle of winter in cold England.

    Perhaps selling just one thing wasn’t such a great marketing idea!

    • Phil Cooke says:

      Actually Glenda, I’d say quite the opposite. She was INSIDE in an arcade, because she’s had her business for so long. Plus, at 80+ years old, her option is a rest home or sitting alone in an apartment. Instead, she’s still doing what she loves, engaging with people, and by the looks of it, the owner of a pretty financially impressive collection of plates. That’s the option I’d choose in that situation.

      • Ben Field says:

        To look at Phils story deeper is that her desire was to stand out from the crowd and separate what she did from the clutter of what everyone else was doing. This is a great example story for those in the modern film making world that can easily become a jack of all roles on a production, but a master of none. Thanks Phil, it brought some clarity to what I do and what I should be doing even if that wasn’t the point of your blog.

        BTW: I heard you liked the HS vision film in London.

  2. Newton says:

    Obviously a very smart lady as well….the significant foot traffic created by the famous Notting Hill Market (in part made famous due to the film) creates a large platform for her to market and sell her bread plates. However, if you take her “one big thing” and try to make it work in another context or platform…I question if it would sell as well….so what does that tell you?

    • Phil Cooke says:

      Great point Newton. There’s no question that you have to find the right platform. It’s a two way street – the right platform with the wrong message doesn’t work. Likewise, the right message with the wrong platform doesn’t either. But I DO think the key to cutting through competition and clutter – especially in the early stages of your career or company is to strive to be the best in the world at ONE BIG THING.

  3. Gabe Taviano says:

    Been forcing myself to do this the past year. Would have been interesting hearing at what point she made the decision to clear out the chaos. At the earlier stages, I’m sure we all struggle with figuring out what things we’re doing would be adding to the chaos, rather than the clarity.

    Kem Meyer’s “Less Clutter, Less Noise” speaks to this pretty well. Enjoyed hearing you speak at Cultivate, Phil. Would be interested in hearing what things you’ve had to get rid of in order to focus? Great post!!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this for years. Just recently I came to the realization that God made me to be able to useful in many different areas. I like doing many different things, and I’d probably be a disaster if I didn’t have a job that allowed me to access that. Last week I actually stopped searching for a “One Big Thing.” I want to be great at what I do. But I don’t see a reason for me to be dedicated to one main idea when I can realistically be great at many things. Instead, I believe in a dynamic skill set that makes me an indispensable part of the team. I have a voracious desire for learning new things.

    The old lady with the bread plates may be good at one big thing… but that’s it. What happens when the world stops eating bread? (figurative). For me this would be too narrow and would limit my usefulness in the workplace and in ministry.

    • Richard Westley says:

      Well said, Jared. I’m a pretty diverse guy as well and I couldn’t imagine focusing on one thing for forty minutes let alone forty years! I do see the value in limiting myself to doing a few things well as opposed to many things “kind of well.”

  5. Kevin says:

    I’ve heard this premise a number of times, and for the most part I tend to agree. However, what about people who are high capacity individuals? Is it possible that some people can actually do a number if things really well and be successful at it? I would think that the creative field is the one area where this is more evident than others (let’s face it, Jordan should have stuck to basketball even though athletics was his “thing”; but if Da Vinci had stuck to just painting…). What do you think?

  6. Teresa Roberts Logan says:

    I felt haunted for years by the “Jack of all trades, master of none” idea . . . and then I let go of that. I double-majored in college in Art and Theatre – and then realized, ouch, too much of a load. So I chose Art. But Life isn’t as simple as choosing a Major. I became a standup comic because I was an artist at Hallmark and the guys I worked with in the humor department encouraged me to go to an open mic night. It’s all connected for me.

    I feel really blessed that I am both a standup comic, and an artist – and sometimes there is actual overlap, as my cartoons, or when I do my art workshops – I tend to make people laugh . . . while they learn. I’ve learned lessons from all, and between comedy, art (and that subdivides into cartooning and “fine art”), and teaching, I know and learn from some of the most amazing people. Whenever I have tried to totally give up one or the other to “focus” or “brand” myself, I realize that that’s impossible for me . . . because of the relationships I have in each field. I learn and grow from all of those, and I feel God has given me something to give back.

    I know it’s a popular thing in sermons, speeches, and books to preach that you should focus on ONE THING only. But I guess my answer is that life isn’t so clear-cut, and God gifts us all differently. For some, that means ONE THING. For others, we cross over. And there’s a place for both of those paths.

    I don’t think we should be able to sum up who we are in a bumper sticker.

    It’s Life, not labels . . . and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phil Cooke and David Graddy, Javier Otaola. Javier Otaola said: RT @PhilCooke: Do you do 1 thing REALLY well? Or many things PRETTY well? Which is more important? My take: http://tinyurl.com/4fqj6c6 [...]

  8. Wes says:

    I do MANY things REALLY well.

  9. Allen says:

    I’ve thought about this A LOT in my own life. I am also talented in several areas and spent a huge chunk of time trying to pick one. This was what others expected me to do. However, I was conflicted.

    After much soul searching and prayer, my conclusion was: God has given me a “multi-faceted passion”. What that means is that no matter how many gifts/talents I have, there is that “one big thing” – that one big pursuit which can encompass all of what I’m capable of doing. And I must discover it. I believe it’s the same for all of us. It’s not about do I pursue “this gift” or “that gift”. It’s about how do I utilize all of my God-given gifts (even if it’s only one) to bring glory to God, fulfilment to me and positive impact to people.

    I recently read the biography of George Washington Carver. He’s best known as a Botanist who discovered 300 uses for the peanut. But he had a number of gifts/talents/interests. He pursued them all. And when asked why, (if I may paraphrase) he said that they all lead to his “one great thing” – the pursuit of truth. So whether he was in the science lab, painting on canvas, playing musical instruments, or a host of other things – they all served his one desire to find truth about God’s creation.

    I hope this is helpful to someone.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    Author, Speedsuit Powers
    http://www.speedsuitpowers.com

  10. [...] Recently I commented on a post by Phil Cooke titled “The Bread Plate Lady and the Power of Your “One Big Thing.” You can read his post and the resulting discussion here. [...]

  11. Ray says:

    I so needed this

  12. Hernandeztheresa says:

    Rob, you have a very nice and intelligent way to translate what you think about the big things.Thanks.Teresa

  13. [...] of my visit to the Portobello Street Market in London and meeting a charming woman I called “The Bread Plate Lady.” She personified the importance of owning a unique niche. Today, Kathleen and I spent the day at [...]

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