For two years at the end of my graduate school career, I was borderline obsessed with work. I had relatively strict wake-up times set for myself. When the alarm went off in the morning, I would head straight to the computer and start tackling items from my to-do list that mainly involved writing.
My goal at the time was simple – get my writing to as many places as possible.
I was sending out pitch after pitch to various publications. In a normal week, I might submit 2-3 articles on top of also writing a handful of posts for my blog. At the end of each month, I would organize all of the submitted projects into a spreadsheet where I could track performance and keep an eye on payment for my work.
It was terribly exhausting and energizing at the same time.
I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a side project in their back pocket that keeps them excited and gives them something to work on and develop outside of their normal 9-5. It fuels the fire and creates a desire to do/learn/achieve more. For many, the side project could be practicing their dream job until they’re good enough to earn a full-time living from it. But, a side project doesn’t have to be about making money nor does it have to be something you intend on doing full-time. It could be about injecting some good into the world through starting a charity or just perfecting a skill that you’ve always wanted to learn.
The guidelines are loose, but the goal is clear: find something that gets you excited.
Trial and Error
I was fortunate to find that something largely by accident. I was reading through fitness blogs and thought to myself “I could probably do that.” For others, that something is hard to come by. The only way to figure out what you love to do is by doing a lot of different things. Experiment, read, interview others.
When I was in college, I spent the first few months of my senior year working in the Strength and Conditioning Department at the University of Florida. I had the opportunity to work with collegiate sports teams and help program their workouts. I also had the exciting opportunity to clean every piece of machinery in that gym.
I hated it.
After about a month and a half, I quit. My supervisor was noticeably angry with me (I would surmise because he had no one to clean equipment now), but I didn’t care. I didn’t know much at the time, but I did know life was far too short to do something you hated every day.
Prior to that experience, being a Strength and Conditioning coach was my dream job. If I didn’t give it a try that semester, I would have moved hopelessly down a path that I would ultimately hate in the future.
No one is born with their passion stapled to their forehead. So, the solution is trial and error. The problem is that we’re so afraid of the “error” part that we avoid the “trial” in the first place.
If you think your passion is drawing, take 30 minutes each day to draw. If you think it’s playing guitar, buy a cheap guitar from a pawn shop and strum it a few times a week. The same goes for photography, baking, or anything else. The key is to work with what you have, not to acquire what you think you’ll need to get started. As Austin Kleon put it in his book Steal Like an Artist:
Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.
Protect Your Passion
At some point, you’re going to stumble across something that you’ll be hooked on. You’ll find yourself spending extra time during your day reading/learning/practicing that thing. Everything else in your day will just be an obstacle that gets in the way.
Once you find that something, work on it whenever you can. I’m a big believer in working in the mornings since you can invest your energy into something you love. To quote Micah Baldwin:
If the first thing you do in the morning isn’t 100% for you, selfishly, then the rest of your day will be spent not doing anything for you.
The key is to treat it as something important. Once you find that thing, protect it ferociously from the rest of your day. Block off time to work on your passion project. Turn off your phone. Turn off your WI-FI. Do whatever you can to focus solely on getting better at what you love to do.
Share With Others
Once you’ve found that thing you love to do, open up to others. Let them know what you’re working on and how you even managed to find a passion at all.
When someone starts talking to you about what they’re really excited about, it jars you. It’s not normal. People aren’t normally that excited about any part of their day. The excitement disrupts the normal ebb and flow that occurs in conversation.
That disruption can spur action in others. Maybe the person you’re talking to has wanted to pursue another project but has been to scared/lazy to take the next step. Hearing how you’ve invested your time and built something you’re proud of can inspire others to do the same.
“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” —Annie Dillard
Having a passion or “hustling in the margins”1 shouldn’t be about the output. It should be about the input. What does this activity give to you? In some cases, the passion directly translates to an increase in income or an increase in production like when you’re building an app in your free time. Other times, you might not produce a damn thing, but production isn’t the point. Investing your time in something you do is the point.
1. The phrase “Hustling in the Margins” is borrowed from this episode of Beyond the To-Do List.↩