How to organize a “Show Your Work” event at your workplace

Max Frenzel
Jun 19 · 12 min read
Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

In this article, I want to convince you of the magic that takes place when you share your work. And by “work,” I’m referring to two distinct concepts: the finished product and the creative process itself.

What follows is a blueprint for how to push yourself, and how to encourage and enable others around you to do this by organising a “Show Your Work” event in your company or community.

The colleagues you spend so much time with every single day — do you actually know about all the amazing and weird things they’re creating in their free time? Even in the best companies with great working cultures, things get busy. We end up spending most of our time talking about work-related problems. Or, not talking at all.

Not only do we end up having fairly shallow relations with most of our colleagues, but creativity and inspiration often fall short as well.


How Showing Your Creative Work Benefits You

The creativity and motivation we get from personal projects and hobbies are seldom allowed to spill over into the working world. While there is definitely an argument for keeping work and private life largely separated, this is a wasted opportunity.

Around 2018, I was reading Austin Kleon’s wonderful little book, Show Your Work. At the same time, I also realised that — except maybe the two or three colleagues I was closest with — I had no real idea of what my co-workers hobbies or passion projects were.

I also felt that my own creativity was fairly segregated, with ideas being confined to narrow domains and not flowing and intermingling as freely as they should.

Inspired by Kleon’s book, I decided to host an event to bring together people from across the company and allow them to talk in a casual environment with snacks and drinks about the stuff that really excites them when they are not at work.

Shamelessly stealing like an artist from Kleon’s book title, I decided to call the event “Show Your Work”.

I liked the slight contradiction of encouraging people to talk about stuff not related to what we usually consider “work” in an event called “Show Your Work”. It raises the status of these projects — which are otherwise often seen as mere distractions and pastimes — to something more respectable.

When we get the ubiquitous question “What do you do?” from a stranger at a party, almost all of us instantly default to name their job title without even thinking. Why? Why not name any of the other things we do? They probably define us just as much, and I think deserve the same recognition.

With this event, I wanted to give everyone who would be willing to share a platform to do so, and talk about the work they do when they don’t do “work”.


How I Created the First Event

Taking some inspiration from the rules of Fight Club, I wanted to encourage everyone who would join for the first time to also present something (but unlike Fight Club, people were free to talk about the event as much as they wanted — the more the better). I think everyone has something creative to share, even if they are maybe not aware of it or initially think it’s too trivial.

I also wanted to keep it short and snappy, particularly if many people would participate, with talks ideally lasting no longer than 5 minutes (although we didn’t really enforce that in a very strict way).

Having figured out the general format for the event, I set up a simple Doodle poll where people could register if and when they were interested, and posted the following message in a company-wide Slack channel. Feel free to copy this message when organising you own event!

Hey!

I’d like to organize a “Show Your Work” event! Basically, the idea is that everyone gets a bit of time to show and talk about something creative they are passionate about and working on in their free time.

You’ve got some cool code project? Introduce it! You brew beer? Tell us about it (and bring some samples)! You dance, paint, cook, make music, are into gardening…? Talk about it and show us what you made! If it’s more than one thing, that’s cool too! If you don’t have anything finished to show off, talk about the process — that’s at least as interesting as the finished result, anyway.

This should be a nice opportunity to see what kind of creative stuff people are up to and maybe even lead to some collaborations outside of work. Worst case, we’ll just get to know each other a bit better.

Initially I want to keep it short, everyone only with 5 minutes. And ideally I’d like everyone who attends to also show something. If it turns out successful we can always expand on this and organize something different with another format.

I guess we could either try and do it during lunch some time or straight after work.

If you’re interested, leave your name in the form below and indicate which time you’d prefer. If enough people are interested I’ll try to set something up.

Lots of people were interested and we quickly settled to meet one day the following week in the evening after work.

The event was a big success! Around 15 people from all parts of the company took part, and everyone presented something they were deeply passionate about, like bread baking, 2D animation, DIY digital-home assistants, handmade handbags, Chinese tea, and woodcraft.

Not only was the event a fun and inspiring occasion completely disconnected from the daily grind of work that allowed everyone to get to know their co-workers better and learn about their (often very unexpected) obsession, it was also an excellent opportunity to get supporters, fans, and collaborators.

While the number of potential new ‘fans’ at such an event is small, its intimacy and directness make it perfect for gaining ‘true fans’ in the sense of Kevin Kelly’s wonderful essay 1,000 True Fans. A handful really strong supporters, true fans, is much more valuable than a million followers who don’t engage with us and our work.

And even at our very first event, there were multiple instances where people offered to make introductions to friends working on similar projects or pursuits, in some cases even at a professional level.

The connections and communities you form are one of the biggest benefits of sharing your work with people.

As Kleon points out, the idea that great art is done by lone geniuses is generally an illusion. Truly successful artists are almost always parts of scenes where ideas are shared (and stolen) freely, and collaborations or idea exchanges with one person lead to introductions to another. Gradually, a hobby can (if you allow it to) transform into a viable profession in that way.

An additional benefit of having your co-workers know about your side projects is that they will very likely keep asking you about how you’re progressing, or may even want to see some new work. This kind of social accountability is a great way to keep up your motivation.

Only once you shared what you’re working on, it becomes more concrete and you’re truly committed to it. This might sound scary, but it is also extremely rewarding and effective in keeping you on track.

As artists (and I mean this in the broadest sense imaginable), we should constantly think about what we can teach and share with the world about our process or the things we’ve learned. Trying to teach something as soon as we learn it not only connects people to our work even more strongly, it also tremendously improves and deepens our own learning.

Several people at our Show Your Work event actually chose this kind of format, teaching the rest of us, for example, how to make origami cranes or the basics of Japanese calligraphy.

I can’t recommend initiating a Show Your Work event highly enough. Our first one was so successful that we soon followed it up with a second and third round.

And while I decided to move on to a new company earlier this year to focus more of my time on the creative application of AI, even now my former colleagues are still keeping the event alive and regularly send me invitations to every new iteration (or wonderful pictures of it afterwards in case I can’t make it, like the ones below).

Left: Teaching Japanese calligraphy; Right: Erik (who took over organising the event from me) with his result.

Hanamoku: Flowery Thursdays

My new company Qosmo shares the office space with several other creative companies and teams under the joint name of the newly established Dentsu Craft Tokyo. Already, thanks to the initiative of several members, we have set up a very similar event too.

Here, we decided to call the event “Hanamoku”.

Hanakin, literally “flowery Friday”, is a Japanese term that is essentially the equivalent of TGIF in English. And since we decided to hold the event every Thursday, we settled on Hanamoku, “flowery Thursday”.

Every single Thursday from 5 to 7pm people can join in the common area, where free craft beer and snacks are provided, and give a casual presentation about any topic they like.

Nao Tokui talking about surfing.

The format is slightly different from my original Show Your Work events. Presentations tend to be longer in nature, and only a few people are presenting each week, but the general idea is the same.

The results are also the same: People who usually don’t talk get to know each other, new collaborations are formed (which is even more interesting now that we are several distinct companies under one roof), fans are found, ideas are shared and tested at an early stage, inspiration and motivation are spawned, and people just generally have a good time socialising over things that are not directly work-related.


How To Create Your Own “Show Your Work” Event

The biggest hurdle in setting up your own Show Your Work event is really just what Steven Pressfield of The War of Art fame would call Resistance. It’s that inner force that’s trying to keep us from doing something new and achieving our (creative) goals.

This might be particularly the case if you’re not usually in a leadership role in your company. But don’t be afraid. Once you commit to it, it’s much easier than you might expect, and people will genuinely appreciate your initiative.

True leadership is not something that is awarded to us because of a role or job title. It’s something we naturally accumulate through our actions.

Once you’ve beaten your inner resistance and decided to go ahead with it, the rest is really quite simple.

  1. First, figure out the rules and format you want to choose. Feel free to copy my original ones: 5-minute talks, first-time joiners have to present, format and topic of each talk are entirely open (as long as it’s not about actual “work”). But also feel free to decide on a different format. You know your community best, and you should decide on what you think works. And if during your first iteration you realise it didn’t work, adjust it for the next one.
  2. Truly commit to it by announcing the event. Set up a way for people to register their interest and commit to specific times (Doodle polls work great for this) and then share the idea and ask for participation. Again, feel free to directly copy my message above. Slack or similar tools work well for this purpose, but email can also do the job if you think that’s more suitable in your case.
  3. Once you get responses and settle on a day, figure out a location. Most companies will probably be happy for you to use office space after work for this purpose. If you have some good connection to management (or are in that position yourself), maybe you can also convince them to sponsor some drinks and snacks. If not, just make the event BYOB.

On the day, once you know who’s there, I recommend doing the talks in random order. I used a simple line of Python code to randomly shuffle all the names, but good old pieces of paper with names on them pulled out of a hat also do the trick.

And from there, just enjoy the talks and have fun!

You made the rules, you can also break them. We had a “5 minutes per talk” rule but also didn’t stop people who went for 15 minutes. The whole point of this event is to be a casual counterpoint to the rigour and formality of everyday work.

Avoiding common problems

This last point is also where the only common problem might arise. Particularly at the very beginning of the event, and with people who don’t know each other very well — at first, it might feel anything but casual and relaxed.

Here it’s your responsibility as a host to make people feel as comfortable as possible, without being too pushy.

Drinks can definitely help as a social lubricant. But it’s also about the general mood and atmosphere you set as the organizer.

Try and keep it as informal as possible, relax your control, and you’ll find that the event is almost self-organising. People who are there want to share and hear other’s ideas—just make them feel at ease and the rest will come naturally.

I’d recommend including your own name in the random draw for the talk order, but you might want to say a few words at the beginning to set the scene and share the idea behind the event.

Be silly, be unusual! It should be clear that while these are people from work, this event is not work-related. It’s just a bunch of creatives sharing their passion with each other.


Unexpected Results

I hope that I have already convinced you that you should start your own Show Your Work event (or whatever you are planning to call it).

The results of sharing my own work this way have been nothing short of profound.

At the beginning of 2018, I published my very first article with no intention of writing any others. I was certainly not planning to become a writer.

I was messing around a bit with making beats. But I was absolutely not planning to become a musician.

I had a job applying AI to business-related problems and was only doing some minor creative projects in my free time. I was definitely not planning to become an AI artist.

Fast forward about 18 months to June 2019 as I am writing this, and all these unlikely and unexpected things have actually become a reality. I am writing a book, I produce music and regularly play live shows, and my full-time job is in computational creativity, applying AI to design, music, and art; I currently have an installation at the famous Barbican in London.

All of this unfolded thanks to the amazing things that happen when you share your work freely and openly.

If you want to read the whole story of how this all happened, I wrote a piece about exactly that.

Since part of this story was actually the topic I chose for my talk at our second Show Your Work event, the article also contains actual slides I used during that talk. Maybe beyond just inspiring you through the story itself, it can also inspire your talk at your first event.


I hope I got you excited and eager to get your own work out there and share it with the world. And I hope that maybe you will even consider organizing a Show Your Work event in your company, community, or circle of friends.

For me, sharing my work has been a completely transformative experience. As a result of the many little unfinished pieces — as well as big completed projects — that I showed to the world over the last year or so, my life has completely changed.

Above all, it led to me working on one of the most meaningful (and potentially most impactful) projects I have ever worked on: our book Time Off and the community and movement we hope it will turn into.

And there is no better way to build a community and movement than by sharing your work!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Max Frenzel

Written by

Things I’ve read, thoughts I’ve had. AI researcher by day, writer and beatmaker by night. Writing a book on the importance of Time Off: www.timeoffbook.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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