How Side Projects Can Help You Succeed at Your Day Job

Unicorn Origami Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

Unicorn Origami Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

During Workday’s Design Week in 2018, I submitted a talk to inspire people to have side projects. The talk was well-received and inspired other talks similar to it in this year’s Workday Design Week. I had the talk transcribed and refined it a bit so it’s more digestible. You can view the entire talk linked at the end of the article.

As children, one of our greatest gifts is the ability to make believe. Whatever we imagine can become our reality. When I was young, I wanted to publish my own comic books. I loved telling stories. This was my creative outlet.

As adults, it’s easy to lose sight of imagination — of how powerful our own creativity can be. That’s where side projects come in.

Confucius once said, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” In this context, work is something you dread doing — but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you love what you’re doing, it won’t feel like work at all; it will feel like something you enjoy doing — like make-believe.

Do what you love

When it comes to picking the right side project, find something you love to do. In other words, find a project you identify as fun. It doesn’t matter how busy you are with your job: carve out time to do something you truly enjoy.

When I was working as a web developer in Chicago, I had a coworker who was a great guitarist. He was also a developer, so he created a chord application in Flash on a disc.

I was talking to him one day and said, “You know, maybe we should stop using CD-ROMs and put this thing on a website so everybody can find the chords.”

In 2007, we started a website called Chord Connection, or “Chord-C” for short. The goal was to connect people with chords, to make learning guitar chords accessible.

With Chord-C, I started learning about search engine optimization and marketing and was able to grow our website members to more than 7,000 organically. We didn’t run ads or anything but ended up submitting the site to Apple when the iPhone was released, and the site was staff picked — all because my buddy and I followed through on a project we loved.

It was also a great learning tool since both of us were front-end developers. During this project, I got better at layout, typography, and color to name a few.

But the learning experience didn’t stop there. When we developed the mobile app “Chord Finder” for the iPhone, I felt it was a little slow, so I spent about six months learning iOS development to speed up the app.

From there, I took what I’d learned with Chord-C and applied to more projects.

When I first moved to San Francisco, a friend of mine was having a hard time finding work in the Bay Area. I was familiar with a site called Authentic Jobs, which had an API, so I developed an application for him to find jobs on the go. I was using what I had learned building the Chord Finder iOS app.

Around this time, my first daughter was really scared of the dark, so I thought “All right, I can make you something so you won’t be scared — a flashlight app.” It’s also a nightlight and clock she can put on her nightstand. (It didn’t really work, though; she still snuck into our bed.)

Identify a need

A while later Apple released its keyboard extension. At the time my dad was asking me, “How do I type Lao in my iPhone?” and I thought, “Wait, they don’t have any Lao fonts in iOS. There must be another way.” I was pretty happy when Apple released the keyboard extension because it allowed me to meet a specific need in the Lao speaking community — an easier way to type Lao across multiple apps. There were already other apps that had a Lao keyboard before Apple’s keyboard extension existed. However, they were painful to use: people had to type within that app, copy the Lao words they just typed and paste it in to other apps. We aim to make it easier with our Lao Keyboard extension app.

Over a weekend, my brother (who knows more Lao than I do) worked with me to create the Keyboard Lao app and release it.

For those of you who don’t know, Laos is a small country in Southeast Asia sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Before the birth of my second daughter, I discovered another side project that could not only expand my creative horizons but give something to the Lao community that there wasn’t enough of before: children’s stories.

I figured, “Okay, since I know how to draw and write stories, I’m just going to do it.” I gravitated toward children’s books because they’re short and rich with images and because there was a need. I even planned a Kickstarter campaign that corresponded to my second daughter’s due date, which helped the marketing of the campaign and raised enough money to print the books.

After you’ve figured why it’s needed, next ask the questions, “What will I get out of this? What need will it fulfill?” If it can benefit you it may benefit other people as well.

In other words, if your side project fulfills a need it also has a purpose.

Yoda Quote Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

Yoda Quote Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

Carve out time

If you’ve seen the movie The Last Jedi, you’re familiar with the following quote by Yoda, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Simply put, you learn fastest when you fail. When you fail, you take what you’ve learned and try again, building on the foundation of your failure until you ultimately succeed.

Even if your side project is — commercially speaking — a flop, you still reap the personal benefit of learning new things. You increase your intellect and expand your network. This creates a cycle that will eventually spill over into your professional life as well.

While working on the children’s book, for example, I gained a better understanding of product design and how to navigate the children’s book industry.

None of this matters if you don’t carve out enough time to complete the project though. On the flip side, the time you carve out can influence how long it actually takes to complete the task at hand.

There’s a technical word for this, “Parkinson’s Law,” but I like to call it the “procrastinator’s law.” In short, this law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you give yourself three hours to get something done, it’s going to take three hours.

Once I realized this law existed, I started pushing myself to accomplish tasks within a timeframe that forced me to actually get the work done. My first children’s book took 14 years to create — which is why I started the Kickstarter campaign in the first place — to provide a sense of urgency. And it worked!

Think about it like this: You have 24 hours in a day, so why not devote one of those to something you love that not only fills a need in the larger community but furthers your professional skills too?

Bruce Lee Quote Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

Bruce Lee Quote Illustration by Nor Sanavongsay

Take action

The final step is taking action. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s probably the most challenging piece of the side project puzzle. Bruce Lee said, “Action is a high road to self-confidence and esteem, where it is open, our energy flows toward it, it comes readily to most people, and the results are tangible.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much time you can devote to your side project as long as you take action at some point and move toward your goal. Failure is encouraged, and it won’t feel like work if you’re doing something that you love. If you think about it too much, you’ll never get it done.

The rewards are huge — so jump into your next project with both feet and make believe something you can be proud of into a reality.


Video of the talk I did at Workday Design Week 2018