If you google the phrase “the importance of side projects” you’ll get just over 6.5 million results. The vast majority of these articles remind you of how valuable it is to exercise your brain on things that fall outside your day-to-day work, and that “someday those external activities might lead to your full time ones.”
However there’s a recurring flaw in this overly-prescribed advice: “side projects” get confused with “interests.”
Learning to code is not a side project. Building a website that sorts photos of bananas is.
Writing fiction is not a side project. Developing a short story about zombies and chickens is.
Wood working is not a side project. Constructing a boat that doesn’t sink is.
The key difference between a side project and an interest is an achievable goal. Until you ship something, you’re just a dabbler.
This weekend I decided to focus my attention on shipping a side project called Cartegram. You can check that out here. Most of the benefits from work on this game wasn’t about “being creative” and more about about using tools and processes that don’t get as much of my attention day to day. Finishing the design of this game was a pragmatic opportunity for me to practice skills that I don’t frequently get to use including illustration, video editing, and photography. As a marketing guy, none of these things are essential to my job, but being better at them than most of my peers gives me a serious leg up.
All of us have interests, but I encourage you to think about what product can finally come of those skills and activities you participate in. Here are a few questions to help you along:
- Can this interest involve other people? Even better, who can it benefit besides me?
- Is this interest something that can turn into a product I could theoretically sell?
- Are there other people in your interest group shipping completed projects that you could borrow and improve upon?
- Is there a younger person with a similar interest that you could mentor and partner with?
- Could you potentially run a crowdfunding campaign (Kickstarter, etc) to gauge interest in pushing a side project forward?
An interest is a one-word answer to the question of “how do you like to spend your time?” A true side project is something that has a beginning middle and end. It’s a story. And it will be far more captivating to others, and valuable for you.