Despite what click-bait media would have us believe, there is no list of 10 secrets that produce success. Reality is much messier than that.
However, there does seem to be a consistent theme with those who find career success: side projects.
A “side project,” as defined in this article, is any project that helps develop skills in one’s chosen industry. Simply put, if you’re trying to double your income in the next five years, the most efficient way to do this is to work on a project outside of work that challenges you to develop new skills.
Side projects increase your income potential in one of three ways:
1. New, demonstrable skills allow you to request a pay increase from your current employer.
Once you’re comfortable and confident with what you’ve learned from your side project, force your employer to make a decision between keeping you, your skill set and your ambition, or attempting to find an adequate replacement. This is the preferred approach if you like your job and the company you’re working for.
2. Side projects demonstrate proficiency better than work you do within an organization, so you become more attractive to potential employers.
Every interview involves rehashing your experience from a previous employer. The problem is that this constrains your “experience” to whatever your previous employer’s objectives were. Side projects allow you to pick a specific problem to solve, which allows you to define your previous experience. This is the preferred approach if you’re looking to make big leaps quickly, but it also requires a more substantial effort on your part.
3. Turn your side project into a side business.
Nothing is more rewarding than a side project that makes a profit. In order to do this, however, you have to create something valuable and sustainable. This is far more work but it comes with the added benefit of increasing your income on top of either of the other two options. The most important thing to remember with this approach is that it’ll likely take a few “failed” side projects before you find something that has a viable business model.
During my last few years of college, I worked on a website that was intended to be a directory of “things to do” in my college town. Ultimately, the project fell apart. What was left in its wake, however, were a number of lessons that I couldn’t have learned in school. In fact, it laid the foundation for my career in web development, which wasn’t what I went to school for.
In the four and a half years since graduating, I’ve worked for 5 employers and started a side business. I’ve used side projects as a compass for navigating my career path rather than allowing employers to define it for me.
In order to do this, I’ve found that you need to redefine your relationship with “entertainment.” If you’re inclined to just chill out and watch TV at the end of the workday, try dedicating two nights per week to a side project. You don’t want to get burnt out or frustrated. You’re aiming for a combination of enjoyment, challenge and progress. These ingredients feed off one another, and you may begin to find that you’re more interested in your side project than your TV.
As I stated at the outset, this can be a messy process. No one is there to guide you; you’re the one deciding the outcome. However, this can be an enjoyable process, so long as you remember it’s a learning process. The goal is to build confidence in your decision making and to define your own career path. And, maybe, you can build a little muse business on the side, too.