Jul 312014
Sometimes I have to do my work on the side.

Sometimes I have to do my work on the side.


“I’ll never regret the time I spent driving a taxi. That was fun, profitable and educational. But I do regret frittering away a whole lot of perfectly good downtime.”

If you can’t make a living at something, do it for love. If you can’t do it full time, love the time you do spend with it.

I’m reading several articles on the value of having side projects, and the whole concept really resonates with me. Been a part of my life for as long as I can remember — as long as I also remember that I’m working on a side project.

It’s not just me. I already mentioned the barista at your favorite coffee shop. You may or may not know she’s a thriller novelist, and while she’s making your double-chocolate latte she’s shoving someone into a wood chipper. As soon as she’s done with your latte she’ll dash back into the break room and throw down a quick note:¬†“Turn the wood chipper on before you insert the body.”

That’s what keeps her sane. As long as she delivers your latte the way you like it — sans chunks — no one’s the wiser. She’s doing her job. She’s pursuing the side project while she works.

Google’s onto this. If you work for them you’re allowed to spend 20 percent of your work time pursuing some creative side project that pleases you. The rationale is that you’re refreshed and the 80 percent you do give Google is a whole lot better than the 100 percent you give some company that owns your butt full time. You’re taking a break from work. That’s all.

Now, understand there are some restrictions here. Using that 20 percent to cure cancer or write that great jazz composition is a good use of that time, though Google may frown on you using that 20 percent to write code for a direct competitor. I mean, there are limits.

Admittedly, Google’s reaped the benefits of that 20 percent rule. Gmail is one of those projects that sprouted from someone’s 20 percent time.

But that’s Google. San Francisco State psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman studied the idea of employees with side projects and how they help keep a worker at his best.

“The results indicate that organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work,” Eschleman reports. “Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.”

An article by the Hiut Denim Co. outlines what makes a good side project: It must be:

  • Low risk: You can take your time with it, screw it up all you want and you’ll still survive. Your paycheck does not depend on the outcome of your project.
  • Low pressure: There’s no deadline. It gets done when it gets done.
  • A labor of love: Since you’re not getting paid for the work up front and you’re gambling on the future, something’s got to keep you going with it. How about because you love the work, you love the project?

My own career track has been especially bizarre. Delivery driver. Journalist. Casino employee. Taxi driver. Railroad employee. Freelance writer. Most recently, well, I guess caregiver is now the occupation. That’s all over the map. While I’ve never been dumb enough to tell any of my employers this, the occupation is the thing that makes my side projects possible.

But I found that the best side projects have little to do with the actual occupation. Which means writing that novel wasn’t the best use of my off time when I was out terrorizing politicians and land developers for the newspapers. Been pounding out words for 10 hours today, so why do I need to go home and do a whole lot more? But I could go out and play a few sets with the local jazz group, get some creative juices flowing and have a nice break.

I considered music my “hobby” back then, though I was getting paid for it and was declared a professional by fellow pros. What was funny about my choice of labels here was that this was in the 1980s, when baseball player Bo Jackson said he was going to play NFL football as a hobby:

I did a lot of writing while toiling with the railroad company. A dumb job, hot, sweaty, low pay, but I made good use of the occasional down time. Got a lot of writing done then.

For me, though, a key is remembering I have a side project and actually doing it. Those years I spent driving a taxi? I wasted a lot of that.

See, taxi driving has lots of down time. I’m hanging out in some parking lot waiting for my phone to ring or the dispatcher to holler or someone to walk up to the cab. Could have finished what? A dozen¬†novels doing that?

Nahh. Not even one. Didn’t even think about that then. I’ll never regret the time I spent driving a taxi. That was fun, profitable and educational. But I do regret frittering away a whole lot of perfectly good downtime.

It wasn’t a total waste, though. I did further my music education and played a lot of music during those years.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the survival game or other drama that I lose sight of that side project that means so much to me.

While many say a professional writer or musician does that at the exclusion of everything else, I’ll have to disagree. It’s your attitude that makes you a pro, not the time factor. But I never wanted to play music exclusively, and writing exclusively isn’t so good for my head.

Guess I’d better post this thing; duty calls.

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