In praise of the side project

I knew side projects were good.

I can’t trace back to where or why, but I know that earlier, when I was running my own business, there were times I felt highly possessive of a team member’s time and attention. Like I owned them. Like anything other than THIS was betrayal. Even though we looked for and hired people with a breadth to them, who demonstrated through action their creative energy. (I can only apologize. I was young).

It wasn’t quite as binary as I make it sound there, but in time I came to see that only great things emerged from team members side projects, their creative explorations, their learning. Of course they fucking did. It’s embarrassing to write, now. But I guess I get and indeed first came from that ‘all in’ mindset that many leaders, investors and managers may still feel.

As I grew and evolved myself, as I saw team members bring so much richness from their worlds outside of work, as I wrote a book that was mine alone but also helped our work, as I stopped running my own business and shifted to a purely friendship based relationship with ex-colleagues and saw them crafting and learning outside of work and how that made them so good and unique in what they offered to their clients, their users and employers, I saw more and more clearly the extra contribution that side projects made. It wasn’t and isn’t even a neutral sum, it’s a positive add – of course it is.

Since then, I’ve been a better, more enlightened supporter of team members’ side projects. And starting my Here Right Now podcast project has been the best thing I’ve done for me, creatively, in years.

A side project has given me creative independence and autonomy that you just can’t come by, even and maybe especially in a more senior role. I can use CAPS if I want to. I can explore fringe topics. I can shape it and screw up and blunder my way through and it’s all mine and all on me. I make every decision.

It has re-awoken and actually increased my empathy and respect for creators of any kind. Every side project comes from a good place, from an energy to see something in the world – artists, activists, entrepreneurs, lifelong learners. When I see someone’s initiative pass me by now I feel: I feel a connection with someone striving for something. And I want to support them somehow, see them succeed more.

And doing my side project has helped me realize that most of the time most people don’t give a fuck. The apathy, even of those you might’ve thought would be right there with you if they knew how much it matters to you, it’s utterly humbling. In a good way. I get more interaction for a photo of a pizza than a podcast I put hours of work and thought into. It’s got me back on a level. I am reminded what it takes to get something going. No one really cares that much. Oh well – so no one cares – cool, well let’s have at it then 🙂

New practical skills is an obvious benefit. I’ve learned new stuff about microphones, audio quality, transcription, about podcasting services and platforms, but also – as someone would’ve graded themselves as highly competent at hosting and chairing panel discussions (lol) – doing the podcast has forced me to confront that I’m actually an average-to-poor interviewer, that great interviewers have actually mastered their craft, and that instead I have to edit out 50% of my long rambley questions, my weird affirmative MMMMMMs and other quirks. Good learning.

Extra networks are created through side projects, too. Just 3 episodes in, and I have 3 new connections, 3 super smart humans out there in the world that I know and that know me. This is how good things happen, and if the right moment or project arises, we will find one another.

Lastly and by far the most important benefit, it’s reminded me who I am. I am not my job. My job is not my total identity. I care so much about my work and about the last two organizations I’ve worked for (my own and then another founded by a friend in my home city) that I have allowed them at times to over-dominate and to try and meet every need through them. Breathing space and variety is good. I’ve also allowed myself to not think of myself as creative, and defaulted to always allowing others to take the creative lead. That’s a mistake, I’m very creative (honest) and having a solo project allows me to stretch all of that unfettered and unrestrained. I AM CREATIVE!!!!!!!

And all of this? All of this washes into everything that I do every day in my fantastic, demanding role at Brandwatch. This stuff isn’t divided from my committed work in my day job by some impermeable membrane, some ‘imma build a WALLLLL’. Just as Anna’s artistic experimentation feeds into her work delivering creative, life-changing digital transformation at Hyper Island, Jed’s music writing and curating must add richness to his strategy work and client relationships at Initiative, I have seen Phill’s consumer psychology podcast directly contribute to his product positioning and messaging at Brandwatch, and Ross’ playful experiments in video making are a conduit for behavior change at one of the UK’s biggest banks. This stuff makes us better at what we do. I know I am a better, livelier, more energized CMO for Brandwatch since I started this than I was before.

I praise the side project. What’s your next endeavour, just for you?

While you’re here, you should probably sign up for Here Right Now – it’s a podcast about the future that’s already here. Also available on Apple podcasts and Spotify.

2 thoughts on “In praise of the side project

  1. Thank you for the mention mate! I reckon LWSTD has improved my work immeasurably – gives me space to work new ideas out, forces me into finding new ways of looking at things, and gives me a tangible output (which strats and planners very rarely have). Up the side projects!

    Jed Hallam


  2. > Lastly and by far the most important benefit, it’s reminded me who I am. I am not my job. My job is not my total identity.

    Yes! I feel this. I reduced my hours during COVID for child care reasons and although that time was incredibly hard it’s highlighted that I don’t know what I have going on other than work and kids.

    At the start of my career I used to build things at work, now I manage the people who build things; it’s fulfilling but in a different way. When do I get to build something?

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