For several months last year, my middle school son worked on his first major research project. He had to choose an animal, learn about its habitat, and write a comprehensive report. As is his style, he didn’t write about a leopard or a wolf or anything familiar. Instead, he chose a very unusual creature—the axolotl.
Sometimes known as the Mexican walking fish, this salamander is a favorite of amphibian lovers, because it is unique and has been a very adaptable creature. For example, unlike frogs and toads that transform from water- to land-dwelling as they grow older, axolotls keep their gills and fins and live in water. This adaptation may have been in response to a reduction in the availability of food on land, or some hostile threat that forced them to stay underwater.
In contrast, when the axolotl is in captivity, it will often spend more time out of the water, and as a result the gills will be absorbed into the body, the lungs will mature and the creature becomes more suited to the new environment. One of the more unique features of the axolotl is its ability to regenerate entire body parts, including whole limbs, gills, eyes, kidneys, even large portions of its liver and its heart muscle. Lose a leg in a battle with an enemy? Grow a new one!
In the wild, axolotls live only in Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City. Unfortunately, this natural habitat is rapidly deteriorating because of human activity. Agrochemicals from nearby farms and wastewater from the Mexico City sewage system are polluting the lake. It is also shrinking, as much of the marsh areas have been drained to create more landmass for the encroaching city. Adding to the shrinking lake and the pollution is the threat of large tilapia and carp fish farms. Tilapia farming began in the lake about 20 years ago and these hardy fish now dominate the lake, crowding out axolotls. With all these threats, the axolotl is critically endangered and at risk of existing only in captivity.
You might think that these unique abilities to adapt—living in water, living on land, growing new limbs—would ensure their survival. So why are axolotls near extinction? Because although they are unique and special animals, it’s not clear what their unique value is to those who could help them. Because there’s a difference between being unique and having unique value.
Unique value is what you bring to the world, different from the contribution that someone else brings. Articulating this unique value is perhaps the most important thing you can do in advancing your cause and keeping your work going in the long run. What do you uniquely bring to the community? What is the difference you are making—and how do you know? Answering these questions will make it easier to make decisions about what to do next, to make a case for funding support, to achieve the change that you seek, and ultimately to survive and thrive for the long haul.
Like the axolotl, there are many environmental threats to your success—lack of funding, changes in leadership, issue fatigue, communications challenges. You can have a unique and special project or partnership, but what will help that project stand out in a competitive environment? Learning to refine your ability to articulate your unique value is essential to sustaining long-term impact. Your goal is to ensure that, unlike the axolotl, your work and your partnerships are not critically endangered.