Elevate yourself with side projects

Do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, writes Matt Haughey, even if you think you don’t have time

working on projects
Image Credit: Alice Lee

Albert Einstein’s first job was a low-status assistant clerk in an office, allowing him to devote free time to pursue his real passion, theoretical physics. He had a string of published science papers, and came up with his Theory of Relativity during off hours. The artist Jackson Pollock worked as a school janitor and spent his after-hours painting.

With his animated movie studio deep in the red for over 20 years, Walt Disney was forced to take six months off for health reasons. He spent most of the hiatus hand-building steam trains in his backyard, each train just big enough for adults and kids to ride. That mini-railroad became the blueprint for a fairy-tale theme park — eventually called Disneyland — the enterprise that ultimately prevented the movie studio from going under.

tinkering with tools and a train

While I’m clearly no Einstein/Pollock/Disney, my own career is filled with side projects going back over two decades. I started out learning HTML in 1995 as a hobby during grad school, followed by a career change to web work, and after a few years of helping launch blogging’s early days with my own sites, those side projects morphed into a company I ran for a decade.

Going from running a successful blog on the side to having it launch a new career is a well-worn path for many people. New York publishing houses have literary agents specializing in turning popular Tumblrs into books (Indexed, Humans of New York, Slaughterhouse 90210). Many comedians are scoring one-hour specials and TV show appearances after building big Twitter followings first. And now that we’re several years into social media being ubiquitous, we’re seeing TV shows and movies featuring stars that grew from YouTube and Vine.

Side projects at the workplace

There’s something wonderful about meeting people that love to tinker. One of my favorite things to ask new coworkers is about their hobbies, their personal websites, and any side projects they feel like sharing.

Dawn Sharifan, Slack’s director of People Operations, believes that candidates with external interests are able to bring a more diverse set of ideas and experiences to work.

“Side projects help people avoid burnout, which is a major problem in our industry,” says Dawn, also pointing out it can improve teamwork. “You may have more experience or muscle in working together and supporting folks through a challenging time (sporting hobbies for example) and it can be about the team win vs. individual success.”

“At the core of it, people that have hobbies or side projects say that they are on a path for continued improvement, intellectual curiosity and well roundedness.” — Dawn Sharifan, Slack’s Director of People Operations

But there can be drawbacks to putting too much stock into asking candidates about outside interests during the interview process. For several reasons, Slack discourages asking candidates about side projects in interviews.

“I wouldn’t want a hiring team to be distracted by someone’s awesome rock band,” Dawn says, “when we are looking to hire a fantastic QA engineer.”

Asking questions about interests outside of work can also introduce unconscious bias. “As we’re hiring to build a diverse team, it’s really important that we focus on ability to do the job,” Dawn continues. “We may just like the person more because we have a similar project/hobby or we identify with it, which tends to align with people that are similar to us or who come from similar backgrounds.”

But once at Slack, it’s a point of pride that most employees have hobbies and interests outside of work, and they’re encouraged to share them freely in new-hire introductions and social channels like #crafts, #sf-jam-sessions (for musicians in the San Francisco office), and #nbsports (no-ball-sports for discussions of surfing, skateboarding, and BMX).

It’s generally a positive thing because it demonstrates employees have enough free time, space, and security in their work that they can do impressive things on the side, and most often that ends up aiding and informing their day-to-day work as well. It’s great when those skills can be worked into an employee’s position but even if an employee’s side project has nothing to do with their role at Slack, seeing someone enjoy themselves with whatever pursuits take their fancy is a sign of a happy, healthy worker.

playing violin

Making time is the hardest part, but you can do it!

For many, the first barrier to starting a new side project will be finding the time. If you’re in this camp, finding stretches of tinkering time in your already-busy life will be a challenge.

Start by identifying one thing you currently spend your time on that could be replaced by another without causing ripples of disruption across the rest of your life. For instance, could you try cutting TV or the time you spend online? Can you let a household chore go for a week or two while you use the time normally spent tidying up or folding laundry to learn some new chords or jumpstart that novel?

Write down a list of things that are either things you wished you were better at or things you wished existed that you’d like to create. For the former, think of all the small projects that could help improve your skills in the wishlist. For the latter, think about the first steps you could take to create something new. Pick your favorite item on the list — one thing! — and give yourself a couple weeks to work on it. You might even tell a friend what you’re up to, in the hopes they’ll check your progress in the future.

After a few weeks, review where you stand. Did you improve at something? If so, great, move on to the next item or start another project with your newfound skills. If not, maybe try something else on the list?

If you can, carve out space in your after hours to yourself. Pursue your hobbies. Flex your creative muscles. Make yourself a happier person with a broader range of skills. Go forth and make something great. And share it with others — and with us! — when you feel it’s ready. We can’t wait to enjoy it too.

Matt Haughey is a highly opinionated fan of vexillology.

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.