In my own experience side projects don’t always appear outside of the day job; a lot of my own projects are fundamentally interwoven with my job, even if they’re rather on the periphery of my actual job description… so this time I found a friend and peer who is possibly even more prone than me for initiating and collecting those side projects that emerge within the day job.
Matt is Lecturer in Enterprise and Operations at the University of Buckingham; that’s his full-time job but you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was part-time because of how much else he does. He also works as an independent business growth consultant, does volunteering and charity work, supports his wife’s business, and is a husband and father of two (the second of which arrived between me interviewing him and me writing it up) but even that list doesn’t really capture all the projects Matt has running at any given time.
But this story isn’t about all those side projects; it’s about the side projects that bubble up within the day job itself. This is an area that has fascinated me lately, partly because I’m rather fond of a day-job side project myself… and I knew that Matt was too.
Your Job Description: a secure fortress or a launch-pad into the unknown?
If you cut the working population crudely in two, I suspect you’d find one half who use their job description as a useful limitation; as a means of saying no to tasks, challenges, or even opportunities. The fine detail of their appointed role is a secure moat that protects them from the unwanted, unexpected, and dangerous extras that sometimes come along. I think we all sometimes do this when we’re overwhelmed, unwell, or just feeling grumpy and want to retreat into security.
The other half of the population however barely register those fine details and interpret the job description as merely a guide or hint to their duties; it’s basically just a starting-point for all kinds of barely-justifiable activities. Again, I suspect we all do this when we have the energy and motivation to do so.
Matt and I are both lucky and privileged to have jobs we love and jobs that give us a high degree of autonomy and agency. We both work in universities teaching and supporting student entrepreneurs and pursue an array of related projects including research, pedagogical development, civic engagement, and institutional networking. We are very lucky to do jobs we enjoy.
There are real resonances here with Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ in which he identifies Autonomy (being able to be self-directed), Mastery (being able to get better at things), and Purpose (doing something with meaning and personal importance) as intrinsic motivators that can be harnessed to power our satisfaction and drive. Side Projects are a great way to tap into all those things.
“I like solving problems and unpicking them; and fun for me is just that kind of stuff that might not be fun for others…”
Matt and I are both prone to meddling in the affairs of others. In my case I often act before I think; I’m always keen to connect, link, and offer ideas, usually without much filter, and it also reflects a persistent over-confidence in my own insights.
Matt suggests that “Aspergers is my superpower! I’m a good approximation of a human.” He tends not to notice the social stigmas associated with meddling in the affairs of others; he simply tries to fix the problems as he sees them.
“Someone has to be willing to take the flak to get things done” says Matt; and I agree although I think we would both acknowledge that others may disagree with both our priorities and styles quite legitimately!
What both of us are totally doing is seeing in our day-jobs a series of projects to be explored; a series of tasks to be completed. Inevitably these will be things in which we are invested in some way and where we think our skills can be applied. We are not seeing as many limits to our roles as other more socially sensitive people might.
Matt describes himself as a “damn fine generalist” and I have historically described myself as a “Jack of all trades, master of none, but passable at many”. I would contend that generalists can often jump the gaps and create links that specialists do not, generalists are natural net-workers and meddlers – filling in perceived gaps in the day job provision.
Matt has taken a leading role in revising his department’s marking schemes: “it’s not my job, but it needed doing” and I’ve frequently played a role in my own team offering provocations or drafting the ‘straw man’ ideas and documents that provoked colleagues into collaboration on revising programmes and units that were looking unfit for purpose.
All this takes a degree of self-belief and creative confidence (or maybe even over-confidence) which comes from being past-masters of side projects: “It’s incredibly helpful to be comfortable working in that uncomfortable nexus where experience and bullshit meet.”
Being ‘comfortable about being uncomfortable’ is a quality we both often tout for would-be entrepreneurs and innovators; if you’re not willing to be stretched you won’t be willing to fail, to learn, to disrupt, or to scale an idea up. But that willingness to be uncomfortable for a while only really comes from experience of surviving such situations and gaining from them.
A day job needn’t just be ‘cranking a handle’; there may be opportunities to develop projects within the periphery of your role that allow a little creative problem-solving, a little stretch and learning. There might be social stigmas to suggesting change, there might be a risk of failure, but otherwise we’re just standing still waiting for the world to happen to us.
Side projects beyond the day job are a great way to develop Daniel Pink’s trinity of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, but so can day-job side projects.
Finding the time for all those projects
Matt gets up between 5 and 6 to try and get some project time in ahead of his kids waking up. He alternates between an early commute in to teach or cracking on with reading and research at home. He also works evenings but makes time to chill out before getting to bed around Midnight. Apparently, this is ill-disciplined for Matt who used to have an even more demanding schedule.
“I don’t remember a time when I’ve not done this – although it is catching up on me a bit – I now need the weekends to decompress when I used to just push on through.”
This wouldn’t be sustainable if he didn’t love what he does. Being able to channel your passions through your work does help you achieve greater productivity.
“If it’s going to get me out of bed it can’t just be cranking the handle again, it has to be new and interesting, there has to be some possibility… sitting and repeating does not light my fire. A lot of people don’t do what they like; because I do, I don’t need that valve to recover.”