While his empire began with a mouse, Walt Disney grew his studio into the industry leader in animation. The problem was, he was growing tired of it all. The war, the unions, the daily grind of running a business, all of it had been wearing on Disney to the point where he was losing his love for the work.
It was around this time that Disney began toying (literally) with model trains, thanks to his colleagues Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnson. Kimball and Johnson had been playing with large-scale model trains of their own and shared the hobby with Disney. He was immediately intrigued.
Over the next few months, Disney began building his own large-scale trains, as well as an entire world around them. What started as a hobby, turned into an obsession.
The funny thing about that obsession is that it’s what ultimately became the prototype for an amusement park. We now know that park became Disneyland and its inception took Walt Disney and the Disney brand to a new level. One could argue that it saved the entire company, as it served as a shot of adrenaline for Disney when everything else was growing stale.
We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.Walt Disney
Side projects can be many things. They can be simple distractions that serve as a sandbox for experimentation and learning, but they can also turn into something more significant. Wherever they end up, they are invaluable for your creativity and curiosity. They give you an opportunity to play, learn, and explore.
I love side projects. They’re exciting and fun and open doors to the new, but they also have a dark side. The side where you get super excited and dive in headfirst to only abandon your project entirely, just a few hours or days later. I know I have a long history of unfinished side projects that could have become something more.
I’m sure you recognize the behavior above. Moving on from one project to the next, without quite finishing any of them. Behavior that seems relatively common, but one that completely misses the point.
The value of a side project is found in learning, exploring, and problem-solving. It’s an opportunity to acquire new skills and gain new knowledge. But none of these benefits are earned if we don’t properly dedicate the time needed to finish the projects we start.
To extract the full value from the side projects we begin, we need to define some ground rules. These rules aren’t meant to take away from the play aspect that side projects often inspire, but they do ensure you get the most out of your time.
1. Pick Something Interesting.
First, you must know where to find potential side projects. The best place to look is towards something that captures your curiosity. Having a deep interest in what you’re working on ensures that your attention is held and you have a better chance of finishing what you start.
A great strategy for this is working at the edge of what you already know and what you don’t. Walking this fine line gives you a foundation to learn from, but also something more to learn about. Others say that side projects should require us to practice useful skills, an idea I don’t buy into. Walt Disney didn’t start building model trains because he wanted to create an amusement park. It just happened. There’s serendipity between all knowledge, so limiting yourself to what you think is useful is doing yourself a disservice. And it’s a lot less fun.
2. Start Small.
Once something catches your interest, the natural inclination is to dive right in. While this can be exhilarating, it’s not always the best idea. If we start a side project without thinking it through, we’re prone to biting off more than we can chew.
It’s easy to get lost in the newness of a subject, and it’s that overwhelmingness of the new that often leads to a series of unfinished projects. Instead, strip things down and make it clear what your objectives are. Keep things simple and straightforward, or in other words, start small. Doing so will set you up for success.
3. Temper Expectations.
The great thing about side projects is that there is no pressure. You’re not trying to impress anyone or get famous or make a lot of money. Could those things happen? Sure, but they aren’t the goal. You don’t need to be original or creative or unique, but it can be fun to try.
The primary purpose of these projects is to learn and improve your craft, to gain new skills. There are no expectations, so don’t stress yourself out about the quality or originality. Don’t focus on the outcome, but rather the process. It’s all in the name of learning. Lower your expectations, outside of one key criterion…
Whatever you do, finish what you start. You should create something from your explorations, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Finishing matters for a few reasons.
First, you get a complete picture of the work you were doing. Far too often, we learn how to start a project, but not how to finish it. We don’t experience those final steps because we usually move on before we encounter them. There are lessons to be learned in the finishing part of any process.
Along the same lines, finishing projects can lead you to unexpected ideas and insights. It can open your eyes to big ideas or opportunities that are otherwise invisible. Without seeing projects to completion, we only get a partial picture of what we set out to do.
Finally, finishing completes the act of learning. Giving up when things get hard or confusing isn’t doing you any favors. The learning happens because of the struggles. It’s how you acquire skills over time and how you can extract the full value of any side project you pursue.
Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.Rule 6, Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules
The point of side projects is creation. To make things, without worry. While this can be freeing, it also offers up a bit too much freedom. By applying some structure to our side projects, we can ensure that our explorations are worthwhile.
We can take advantage of the therapeutic properties that a side project often provides. The blissful distraction from a monotonous day job. The excitement of learning something new. The fresh perspectives from engaging with new ideas. Side projects can re-energize you. They can even turn into something bigger, something that may completely change the trajectory of your career.
By setting aside an hour or two from your day to learn without expectation and only a few rules, can result in massive benefits. Just remember to finish what you start.