Why Side Projects Die

We all have them. Graveyards of half-built projects. Folders and repos with the remains of unfinished dreams. That game. That app. That data visualization. Great ideas that are now just collecting that metaphorical dust.

It’s a sad fact, because side projects are magical things. At their best, they consume you. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t think about anything else. The rare ones stay that way, getting faster and faster the deeper you go. They’re the things that make you feel alive. They’re better than sex.

But most side projects never make it. Most get abandoned, and, quietly, they die.

We tell people that we don’t have the time. That life is busy, and things got in the way. It might be true. But we make time for the things we really want to do. So what gives?

We secretly worry it’s because we don’t have the discipline. That we’re just lazy bums not meant to make anything great. This might be true too. But making something is a creative process, and creativity has an inverse relationship to discipline. It’s not supposed to feel like going to the gym. It’s supposed to feel like a work of art flowing through you.

Usually, the reasons we give for dropping a side project are proximate causes that mask the ultimate one: it stopped being fun. Somewhere along the way, the excitement we started with, that all-consuming motivation, just disappeared.

You can almost feel the moment it happens. It’s when you’re several hours into banging your head against a really stupid problem. You know it shouldn’t be this hard, but you just can’t figure it out. Maybe you’re just not smart enough, you think. Maybe it’s just not in you. You’re tired, you’re all alone, and you’re ready to give up.

That’s the moment side projects die. They die because they stop being fun. They die because we do them alone.

They die because they get lonely.

When we’re alone, it’s easy to stop making real progress. We’ll optimize something small we know how to do, rather than tackle the more important things we don’t. But when you have someone else to show, you can’t just adjust the colors one more time and pass it off. Having an audience, even of one, motivates us to make more of the real kind of progress that keeps us going.

When we’re alone, it’s easy to feel stupid. Stupid like spending 2 hours trying to change some configuration, only to realize some inadvertent keystroke locked your config file’s permissions. When you’re alone, that kind of thing can break you. But when you have someone to laugh over it with, someone who’s also made their share of stupid mistakes, it’s a lot more bearable.

When we’re alone, it’s easy to get lost. In any project, we’re almost constantly in a fog of war. We don’t know what we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t even know what to do next. When there’s someone else to point out the obvious, we’re less likely to end up in rabbit holes and dead ends.

This doesn’t mean collaborating is the answer. Collaboration has its own problems. You have to deal with different commitment levels, even while you give up creative control over what you’re making, which are both hard things to do. When it works, collaborating is great. But forcing it is even worse than doing it alone.

So how can we make side projects less lonely?

We’re not sure, but we have a hypothesis. It’s based on fond memories we have of being kids in geeky science and math competitions. Building projects was so much fun then, because there was a whole group of other kids doing the same thing. Remember projects like egg parachute or egg scrambler? We do (though now we wonder about that obsession with eggs).

We wonder if we can recreate some of that magic with friendly challenges to finish more side projects. Something that’s part Science Olympiad, part online hackathon, where we do things like make a game in Go, and share with other people who did it too.

We don’t know if this is the answer. But we do know that we’re going to keep going until we figure out a way to make side projects less lonely. If you feel our pain, and believe in what we’re trying to solve, come along for the ride. We’d love to have company


Originally published at codelympics.io.