Growing your career with side projects

Career Advice
JC Cornell

By JC Cornell
September 7, 2022

November 28, 2023

0 min read

Have you ever noticed that when you come back from vacation, or a really motivating conference, you are suddenly filled with the burning desire to quit your job and follow your dreams?

Then two weeks pass, and you settle back into your old routine; life carries on.  This has happened to all of us at one stage or another, and it can result in feelings of frustration.  We may even feel like we’re just stuck in a rut with no way out.

The key is not to go nuclear and then feel let down when things don’t go through but to use that motivation and excitement to create a fulfilling side project.

Side projects have led to self-sustaining side businesses, full-time jobs, and million dollar start-ups for some. While all side projects may not end up with financial gains, the long-term benefits are more useful.

It’s not just an entrepreneurial thing

Entrepreneurs may be known as the Kings and Queens of side projects, but they are just as important in a regular work environment.

Companies who invest in side projects often find new product lines or new divisions being developed. In fact, Google views side projects so highly that employees dedicate 20% of their work week to them. Gmail, Google Talk, AdSense and Google News were all born out of successful side projects. So was the Facebook “Like” button.

For an individual, side projects might be an opportunity to learn and grow your skills.  An example of this would be an Engineer who has an interest in budgets and planning could develop a side project doing cost analysis.

Eventually that gets integrated into the rmain scope of work. You may find that your side project grows into your next job. Or you may find that what you have learned enhances your current role and takes you in a direction that would previously been unavailable to you. Your side project may benefit both yourself and the company you work for.

How to start a side project

You need to start by taking the ideas from your head and making them realistically workable. Write out all your hobbies, activities, projects, work experience, and dream jobs. Then start cross-pollinating. Look at the items that lend themselves to each other. What works well with each other? Start getting ideas you can build off of.

Start small with something you find really interesting or will solve a problem you have. Keep it simple with minimal complexity. Break it down in small manageable tasks, and give yourself complete creative freedom. The important part is seeing this small side project through to the end. Remember,  it really doesn’t matter if it fails. The focus is on gaining experience, and doing something you have a passion for.

Don’t dismiss your side project as that thing you do when you have some down time. You will need to set aside, and invest, the time and energy into making it work. Be patient with yourself. Get excited about all the things you are learning.

If it doesn’t work, you can trash it

The real beauty of side projects is that your livelihood doesn’t depend on it. About 50% of start-ups fail. Not because they weren’t great ideas, but because there wasn’t enough of a demand for their idea. By starting off anything as a side project, you give yourself the opportunity to put all your energy into making it work without all the financial pressure of a new venture.

Should your side project run its course, you have the ability to shut it down while still being employed. You may discover you really don’t like doing that particular type of work – perhaps the idea was more appealing than the doing. At any stage, you can stop working on your side project and your rent still gets paid on time.

Side projects make you more interesting

Side projects facilitate learning new techniques and skills that you may otherwise never learn in your daily job. They encourage creativity without the constraints of corporate rules. They are an incredible source of self-development and training. Just being involved in a side project can increase your confidence. All of these are important skills that are often not developed in a traditional work environment.

Side projects also benefit your career. Working on a side project will also put you in contact with people you may otherwise never have met, increasing your professional opportunities. By showcasing your side projects during interviews you are enhancing all the skills you have developed. It shows dedication and perseverance to potential employers while increasing your chances of being hired.

The reward is at the end

Personal growth and development never magically arrive. You need to put the work in to see the results. The reward is being able to see where you started and all you accomplished. How investing your time has made you better. Give yourself the time to surprise yourself with how far you have come. Just remember to forget about perfection and focus on excellence.

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