October 5th 2020
The side hustle has become synonymous with success and ambition in modern work, but is it really the best way to achieve your goals? Is it really what you need? Here's why side hustles may actually be holding you back and why side projects might be the better container for your creative work.
Have you ever looked around and felt behind because it seems like everyone has a side hustle? I was on Instagram and a personal finance account I followed was all about that side hustle life: she had six apart from a full-time job. And she probably wasn’t counting all the time it takes to keep a nice and shiny Instagram account going.
Meanwhile, I’m watching movies about hustlers.
Hustlers the movie came out last year, and there I was, curious to see how believable Constance Wu would be as a 20-something stripper after playing a mom of 3 boys and then a not-so crazy-rich Asian college professor. I left mostly impressed by J.Lo’s (post-)mid-life lithe-liness.
Somewhere in between movie magic and real life, the word “hustle” has come to embrace something many Millennials understand, strive and live for—so much so that the opposing force, self care nation, has risen as a part of the counterbalance, creating an ongoing interplay between ambition and chill.
We need to do more, and yet, we also need to do less. Sound familiar?
Welcome to the neverending push-pull between #sidehustlecheck vs #selfcaretips.
Greyer even are the areas where self care feels like another hustle, or where our side hustles are about self care. Where do you think all the Instagram quote posts come from? Someone’s hustling off-hours to tell you how to take of yourself.
It feels like we’re all one degree away from a side hustle, a friend with a business idea they’ve been working on for months, a family member who deems themselves unemployable, and always has some side hustle to try to get them out.
But there are some surprising trends that counter the popular narrative, that we’re all out there starting businesses. The rate of entrepreneurship has actually been on the decline since the 1980s. In the United States, new companies have declined at rate of 50% between 1978 and 2011. (It’s only been more recently, in the last decade, that things seem to be making a reverse back.)
Turns out, we’re not actually all or even mostly entrepreneurs, but I wonder how many people are operating side hustles, starting their own tiny versions of companies, invisible to these formal statistics, sometimes succeeding but mostly failing.
How many of us aren’t starting “serious” businesses, and are actually just burning ourselves out with a new narrative, trying to escape systems, institutions and unfulfilled lives with hustle and grit?
Confession: I used to be a side hustle machine. (Nothing quite as major as Ms. 6-at-a-time, to be fair.)
I was always looking for a way out—I didn’t get into anything as illegal or as dangerous as The Hustlers but I recognized that familiar sense of desperation: a boundless energy to prove myself, to prove that I had it in me to do more.
My first side hustle was a freelance writing business I started at the age of 11. I don’t know why I thought I needed to make money at 11. Maybe I did it for the love of angsty teenage poetry.
I made handfuls of cash…if you measured cash out in pennies.
Later on, in between jobs where I averaged a 3.5 year tenure, I had multiple side businesses and two that became full-time ventures. But I could never stick with anything. I was proud, of many things I’ve done, but that fleeting moment never lasted and I’d burn out, then months or years later, move onto the next.
A couple of years ago, after a life upheaval and internal glowup, one of the most important things I did was try to unlearn my behaviors and what was holding me back. I got closer to my values, what I really wanted out of life and my career, and realized that it was more important for me to do better work than it was to make x number of dollars. Money’s important, of course. I couldn’t sit here and be recounting this if I was flat broke and not thinking about money. (I do sometimes wonder how I’d fare as a self-sufficient hermit.) But that hustle mentality? I realized it came from a childhood of hearing my parents argue about money.
I saw hustle as my only way to find safety…or was it freedom I was looking for?
Slowly, over the years as I started to untangle my built-in insecurities around money, my side hustles became instead side projects. One driven by money and output, the other driven by my creativity and input. They exist on the same plane, yes. They both involved doing, making, and building, and of course, both required time and energy, sometimes lots of it.
But a hustle is a mindset of ambition and diligence: a never-ending conglomerate of things to do and a person to become, a place to escape from, a new place to go. The latter, as hinted at by the “project” descriptor, comes with a start and end date, a specific outcome and an expiry date. It’s less about taking on a whole new persona—“go-go-go!!!”, especially if that’s not really you—and defining what you want for yourself and then trying things to try to get there, one thing at a time.
That gets complicated, sure. How many of us can afford not to hustle? Maybe you’re early in your career or maybe you feel stuck. Maybe you’re fine but you know you can do so much more. Maybe you yearn so much to live up to your potential but you’ve got commitments and obligations.
I think about this sometimes when I try to understand how and when things changed for me, when exactly I stopped hustling to get somewhere and instead started making for fun. I think there’s a link to a few things: when my career started to take some shape and I no longer needed to escape to get out of minimum wage jobs, when I started to get older and had less energy, when I had already spent thousands of hours learning skills and kind of got to the end of the internet, just like I got to the end of the library when I was a kid, and then another, and then another.
At one point, I had three side hustles plus a full-time job. Actually, for a four month period, I had three side hustles, one full-time job, and a part-time job. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in theory; after all, the average millionaire has seven streams of income. In this day and age, not putting all your eggs in one basket isn’t a bad thing to think about and plan for.
But I had started so many out of fear, that I was running out of time to “make it”, and in doing so, limited my capacity to grow creatively and make things that would’ve actually moved me forward rather than just spin around in circles for years.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a lot of practice and learned a lot. My side hustles also generally aligned with who I was, but the way I was going about them, I was putting too much stock in trying to get them to “work” aka make money, and that ended up defining what they became and how they all ended up landing in my side hustle graveyard, taking up more time and energy than they needed to.
I’ve since graduated onto a gentler, more flexible concept: the side project.
So what exactly is a side project?
Almost everyone has a side project.
Not everyone calls it that.
For some, it’s a hobby. For others, it really is a side hustle. For yet others, it’s just “professional development”.
For creatives, they’re commonplace, fluid, woven in and out of the dance of work, jobs, money and fulfillment.
I’m not going to sit here and try to sell you on the whole self care missive: the one telling you that you’re enough as you are and that you don’t need to hustle your way to success and your dreams. (I will be the one to tell you to stop working, be the first to take vacation and remind you at the end of the day, that it’s just work and you’ll absolutely be dead in less than a century, like everyone else you know and love.)
To no surprise, I’m also not going to tell you that you need a side hustle. But, I’ll be the first to list out all of the things I do “on the side”, and with great pride.
Let’s be real here: technically and truthfully, no, you don’t need a side project.
You don’t need something as esoteric as a side project. Even the name implies non-essentiality.
But side projects can pull you forward. They can exist to build your career and sharpen your skills, and for many creatives, they’re also very ironically, a form of self-care.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde, writer, librarian and civil rights activist
If you’re clear on what you want and what you’re trying to make, who you want to be, a side project is a space for you to carve that identity and etch it into existence.
It is not self care as indulgence (though it can certainly feel good to sit down and paint); it is your time and space to preserve and enact your sense of self, wholly based on your own desires and needs.
A side project exists in this weird sweet spot in between work and fun, which of course, comes with all sorts of challenges.
Sometimes you get flack for having them. Some companies wholly discourage side projects because they feel it detracts and distracts focus from what you’re paid to do. Other companies encourage side projects and see them as a way to keep employees happy, engaged and focused on building for the future, not just maintaining the status quo—because maintaining the status quo is a dangerous proposition when change is the only constant. When all people ever work on are roadmapped projects, that leaves little room for the spaces where genius often lives: outside of the box.
Google is credited for kickstarting the 20% idea and now the 20% Project is enacted in schools to boost creativity. Some companies and education systems are looking ahead to see employees as whole people who have boundless creativity, and if allowed the time and energy to try other things and look outside, that this leads to long term business value.
There are many ways to look at and answer the question of the true value of side projects.
They’re valuable for self-preservation, for business impact, for creativity, for growth. They’re not just “for fun”, though they can feel that way. Or just “for work”, though they can feel that way too.
A side hustle has expectations and outcomes attached to deliverables: build a business, make money, become famous, get a job.
A side project focuses on the process and on improvement attached to a deliverable: get better at x skill, make a statement about a specific topic, expand your creativity.
The downsides of hustle culture
We need to deglorify the whole concept of the side hustle: for many people and families, it’s far from Instagram-worthy, far from #girlboss dreams, far from being the one true differentiator between ambition and laziness.
When side hustles first started trending a few years ago, they made it okay for many people, many of them marginalized and underrepresented in traditionally “ambitious” spaces, to come to the surface and take their piece of the ambition pie—or try to.
I stopped needing a side hustle a few years ago. Why? I finally started to make enough money. That’s why. When I stopped needing, that made it infinitely easier for me to want.
I came to a realization that, in my constant pursuit of side hustles, I completely skipped over other ways to get to where I needed to go in my career and life because I was distracted and tired. Most of my side hustles ended up nowhere but that’s time and energy I can never get back. There was an opportunity cost to side hustling that most people don’t think of.
Side hustle culture can serve as a distraction from various systemic issues and challenges in work that need to change: unpaid internships, unliveable wages, poor work conditions, racism, sexism, the list goes on.
You may be drawn to the idea of taking things into your own hands because maybe you’ve experienced these things yourself. Maybe you’re exhausted by all of it and want to take back a semblance of control.
I’m not saying a successful side hustle isn’t possible. Of course it is. There will always be successes. And you know what? Sometimes the concept of hustle is exactly what you need. If you really want something, you can’t sit there, do nothing, and count on of the law of attraction. You have to work hard and maybe more importantly, work smart too.
But “hustle” unfortunately has become a way to sell a dream with high risk and little return.
It’s become an expectation masking distraction away from the often real work it takes to get ahead, whether for money or for your creative self.
So that’s why this is not about how to make more money, start a business, and quit your job.
This is not how to have a cool side thing because everyone else has one, so let’s keep up and all get in too.
It’s not “how to be successful” or “how to make more money”.
Thinking of starting a side hustle? There are many better, faster, less risky ways to spend your precious time and energy if you want/need money and a great career: Learn to negotiate, build up your soft skills, learn how to manage yourself and people better, take on more responsibility, change jobs (the average pay increase for changing jobs is 10-20%, up from the typical 3% annual average raise), change industries (you may have transferable skills that can get you 2x or more your current salary, just by changing industries). Look outside before you decide a side hustle is the only way, or the best way.
If you replace side hustling with working hard and smart, and going out there and asking for what you really want or need, then 100%, I believe in that. You should do that. Try to get yourself there, as uncomfortable as it can be.
We need more of that.
But don’t let the whole shiny side hustle culture stuff distract you.
So why would you want to have a side project?
If you’re a creative and want to do creative work for a living, a side project may not be like air or water. But it’s pretty close to it.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, creative work and side projects don’t relate to the base tier pertaining to your physiological needs, but they weigh in heavily once you’ve gotten those basic needs taken care of. Esteem, level four, relates to prestige, achievement and having a sense of accomplishment. Check. And Self-Actualization, the topmost tier, the pinnacle of what we all are really reaching for, is all about achieving your greatest potential. What this looks like is different and unique to everyone, and it’s about becoming the best version of yourself, creative self included.
In the context of work and getting jobs and moving your career forward, a side project (or a few) does several things:
- puts your point of view forward especially when you’re starting out
- showcases your skills especially when you’re starting out
- allows you to work on something you believe in and want to push forward
- builds your skills in an area that you don’t have the opportunity to at work
Asking if you need a side project is possibly the wrong question to ask.
You should be asking: is your portfolio/resume/body of work the absolute best representation of who you are and what you can do?
Are you proud?
(Notice I didn’t say: is your work good? “Good” is mostly arbitrary and defined by your audience.)
If not, a side project can be the easiest path to getting there. You control the outcome, deliverables, perspective. You’re not relying on a client or a job to present, on a silver platter, the perfect project to you, because how likely is that going to happen?
Side projects are just one way to create your own opportunities. They’re a way to shape your creative voice, perspective and skills.
They allow you to push your work forward rather than be pulled by the whims and demands of whoever happens to be giving you money.
The most important difference between a side hustle and a side project brings in the whole, very important concept of project management: a project has a beginning and an end outcome. Build a website, take a course, etc. You can start a new side project when you’ve defined a new goal, or a new subgoal on the way to a goal.
A side hustle? It’s undefined, nebulous, ongoing. You’re never done and you may never leave. You feel a need to make your side hustle a “success”—you add more features, you work harder, you spend more time. You get stuck in a loop or things just fizzle out. And when things don’t end up working out because they haven’t matched up to a traditional notion of success, you feel bad for it. You feel like you failed, because you’ve set yourself up so that the only possible outcome is to fail. Failure is fine, but if it’s inevitable, I prefer to fail fast.
A side project exists often for a defined moment of time. You let go when you’re done because you’ve predefined why and what you’re doing.
Side projects aren’t the only path to creative independence and/or fulfillment, whichever you’re looking for. Relationships are another path. Money can be another path too. If you are a billionaire, you might not need to do the work that calls to you creatively; maybe you’d just hire a team to do it for you. And yes, 100%, it may seem rare but I think it’s also very possible to be creatively fulfilled in a job. And I think the likelihood of that increases as you get older and more experienced.
But if you feel that have creative potential, there’s no better way to convince others (and yourself) that you’ve got it than to build something for yourself.
You might be asking: don’t employers always want to see real client work? Why work on a personal project when I could just make money and work with real clients? When it comes to jobs, yes, many employers want to see “real” work. But many employers, even “creative” industry employers, also don’t necessarily see the value of creativity at work quite yet.
So they want to see real work because they want to see how you might fulfill job requirements.
I am only able to have the career I do because of my side projects. I’ve jumped from one job to the next, one industry to the next. I’ve done that without any fancy bootcamps, extra degrees or time off. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that—just saying because not everyone can afford these things.)
I hustled (yep) to make sure that I was always doing the creative work I wanted to do. I didn’t get to do all of it and I have a list of things I’ve yet to do. I know there’s a lot more I want to do. But for me, side projects allowed me to experiment, learn, grow and do in the direction that I decided was right for me in the moment, rather than rely solely on someone or something else to take me there. I learned a lot on jobs too, and that’s why it’s like a dance to me. It’s not either/or.
“The cost of inaction is vast. Don’t go to your grave with your best work inside you. Choose to die empty.” -Todd Henry, author of Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day
If you’re reading all of this thinking, actually, this all sounds terrible. I kind of just want to work a nice job, make money and keep it at that, that’s fine too. You do not need a side hustle or a side project. If there’s no pull to do more, and if you feel satisfied with the work that you’re doing, keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs you too.
If that’s the case, the advice for you might be a bit different: it might be that you need to focus a bit more on how your jobs relate to whatever you career goals are. It might be to work smarter when it comes to your job and your career path. You may not have the time or will to tinker on the side to get there.
But it’s possible that how you meet your greatest creative potential can only come through creative side projects. That’s because you don’t need to wait for the perfect opportunity to arrive at your door. There’s not really another way about it. You have to do things where money isn’t a part of it. You have to, if I were saying this to a non-“creative” (even though we all are), have a hobby. Something you do just for yourself.
You have to have something that has nothing to do with what people think you are and who you are now, and all to do with who you want to be and what you want to create.
Maybe one day your side project becomes bigger, or maybe it doesn’t. But through the act of doing, you move closer to future you.
Illustration by: Melissa Ya