Anyone who's wanted to work on a creative side project has come across the challenge of not knowing exactly what to work on. Here are ways to embrace the creative process as part of how you scope for and choose your next side project.
One spring morning a long time ago, a young man by the name of Albert Einstein was walking along a stream when he came across a small herd of cows near an electric fence. A farmer nearby was tampering with a battery and activated the electric fence. The cows bolted quickly. Einstein and the farmer then argued, Einstein insisting that the cows all jumped into the air at once, whereas the farmer saw something completely different: that the cows had jumped one at a time. They couldn’t agree, the result a tense unresolved argument of perception and reality.
This didn’t really happen, of course. It was a dream.
But this dream had in childhood was the entire genesis of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
An ideal, romanticized scenario of side project lore is to have the perfect, amazing idea crystal clear appear to you in a moment of genius or perhaps a wonderful dream. Aha, a prophecy and declaration of creative pursuit! But, it doesn’t really work like that. (Although, sleep and rest have been scientifically proven to boost creativity and certainly many creative ideas sprouted from dreams. Even so, Einstein’s dream haunted him for years before he crystallized his theory of relativity.)
If we were all out there waiting for creative genius to strike, we’d miss out on much of the world’s creativity, including yours.
It probably doesn’t work to just want it and to have it come to you, but it also doesn’t work to force ideas, to know that you want to make something but not know what exactly you want to make. You may feel like you’re banging your head up against the wall metaphorically trying to come up with an idea, all the while your friends and peers are shipping side projects at the pace that you binge watch new tv shows.
It’s frustrating to feel like you have all this creative energy and not know exactly what to do with it.
All you need is the right idea, right?
Wrong, kind of.
As our world changes and the reality of a gig economy comes to fruition, for better or for worse, it’s no longer an anomaly to be a slashie, a multihyphenate, a multi-passionate person. The tough thing is that many creative people have tons of ideas; often, it’s not so much finding an idea but about choosing the right one, the one you want to spend your precious time and energy on.
So a necessary primer: embrace who you are and to let go of the idea that side projects have to be ongoing, that they have to make money, even to go live, to be successful. You can and should build things that are meant to exist for a brief moment in time, to serve whatever your goal is, whether it’s to learn a new skill, improve a current skill, or build up your portfolio and career.
Another necessary primer: you have a lot of time, but you also don’t have a lot of time.
What I mean by that is time is relative and in this context, it means you don’t have to overthink things to the point of coming up with the perfect idea that’s going to make you a creative superstar.
You will have time to work on your next project and then when it serves its purpose, to work on the next, and on and on it goes.
At the same time, you don’t have time to spend on things that don’t serve your goals, whatever they are. Don’t force yourself to start working on something just because you feel like you have to.
As a creative person, the time you don’t spend actively working on projects is extremely valuable, either as rest, research, or the very important act of dot connecting in the dark.
Speaking of goals, it’s important to understand what your broad goal is.
A creative project that you want to make money (aka the side hustle) is going to look very different from a creative project with a primary goal of learning xyz skill.
That’s not to say that happy accidents don’t happen and your creative project could end up being so much more than what you initially wanted it to be.
But, the more aligned you are in advance of why you want to work on a side project, the easier it will be to make decisions around the project, and for you to be happy about where your project lands.
Okay, but how exactly does one come up with the perfect side project idea, if not through a moment of genius?
First things first, there isn’t really such a thing as a perfect side project: one stroke of genius to take you from amateur to amazing, unknown to overnight success.
While it may look that way from the outside, creativity is an amalgamation of experiences, inputs and practice, 10000+ hours if you want to get all Malcolm Gladwell about it.
It’s what happens when all the things we’ve ever looked at, noticed and paid attention to, get mixed up to make up you. And you, as a creative person, take all that and make something to give back and put out for yourself, a select few or the rest of the world.
I don’t believe in “genius”, but I do believe in serendipity and methodology.
Here are just a few ways to come up with your next creative side project idea:
Social listening is practiced by many brands today as a way of conducting audience research, in a way that never has existed before. They use tools to track, analyze, and respond to conversations that happen on social media.
In this unprecedented era, many brands now have a lot more info and data than they know what to do with. But this is a good thing for you: information, insights and on-the-ground “user research” is now much more democratized and available than it ever has been.
Yeah, yeah. We’re all on our devices way too much. Mobile phone usage is at an all-time high and it’s not showing signs of slowdown.
But I like to think of tools as, very simply, tools. Social media is a tool that we invented and we don’t have to be slaves to it, if we choose not to be. We can instead use social media to our benefit: to learn things, to see things, to discover, to engage with people and communities that we would never have the chance to in “real” life.
“Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.” -Matthew Crawford, writer and researcher
Pay attention to what you pay attention to. We don’t often take time to consider what we’re looking at and why. There are clues everywhere.
Julia Cameron’s morning pages ritual (3 pages of free form, sometimes nonsensical writing, whatever’s on your mind) proposes that letting go of your stream of consciousness early in the morning allows you to clear your mind and focus better, be more creative. People also do this as a self care ritual and a way to preserve mental health.
The average person has 12,000-60000 thoughts a day, as found in a study conducted in 2005 by the National Science Foundation. Of those, 95% of these thoughts are the exact same thoughts as the day before.
Morning pages help you see these thoughts, identify them and analyze patterns. What are you always thinking about? What are you paying attention to?
Other tips: you can also learn a lot about yourself simply by reviewing what you’ve liked, saved and retweeted on social media. Self-reflection is a window into the kinds of things other people are putting out that excite you. More importantly, it’s a window into the person you want to become. You might think this is super obvious: I already know what I like, that’s why I liked it, duh. But so many of us now get addicted to our daily flurry of likes that we don’t stop to reflect, review and analyze.
There may be a hidden pattern somewhere in there, even a display of your creative evolution.
Ask people around you what they need help with. Simple as that.
This can be a bit of a trickier one to navigate because you don’t necessarily want to get into making free work and taking on a client (unless you really, really want to—but generally, working for free is not something I recommend.)
So it could be an adaptation of “social listening”, where maybe you don’t ask people directly but you listen closely to what they say, what challenges they have, what they’re always complaining and ranting about.
These are the kinds of projects that can often evolve into side hustles and businesses, because you’re starting with trying to solve a problem that someone has. People pay for solutions to problems more often than they pay for art.
This is a reframe of the overused and overrated: “What’s your passion?” question.
You might not have a grand and glorious passion. But you definitely have curiosities, interests, preferences. You also have things that you wish more people knew about.
Most of my side projects have stemmed from this, actually. When I was still in fashion school, I started a blog called Fashion 2.0, which covered the intersection of fashion and technology. Why? I just didn’t see a place on the internet talking about things the way that I was interested in. This became the perfect example of a side project that started out purely for fun and creative sanity, but ended up becoming the beginning of the rest of my creative career, as I started to identify that I didn’t actually enjoy making clothes, but I did love dissecting, showcasing and helping others see the possibilities when you start to combine fashion with technology.
The internet is really just a content and media machine. Everyone is a content creator now that we understand how information exists and how it can be remixed, displayed, shown, no matter your creative discipline. It’s not just writing: it can be a website, visuals, data, music, product, graphics, anything that people consume.
The question is: what do you want to educate people on? What kinds of things are you always talking about to your friends? What do they come to you for advice on? You don’t have to be the world’s top expert to have something to say that other people earlier than you on their journey would benefit from.
There are so many reasons to say something right now.
What do you want to say? There can never be too many voices, especially if you frame this question back in relation to your personal goals.
Through Fashion 2.0, I learned about, well, blogging and writing for the internet, and that led to learning how to freelance, set rates, work with clients and much more (all very practical things that evolved out of a tiny creative project that only existed for a year or so, now long dead in the internet graveyard).
Do you make new year’s resolutions? 3 month plans? Often the best place to start is finishing up on something you’ve already started. And reverse engineering—in this case, working backwards from your goals and the broader overarching theme of your quarter, year, life—is useful.
This is why I have a running list in multiple places of random ideas that come to mind. I have a spot in my bullet journal and I also have a spot in my personal Notion, mostly because I go through phases where sometimes I prefer to go to pen and paper, and sometimes I like to go all digital.
It’s my ongoing braindump, a place I can tuck ideas away so that I don’t have to think about them until I’m ready.
I’ll come back and revisit my list throughout my year, sometimes when I’m actively thinking about my next project or sometimes when I’m planning my time in general. So far, I’ve discovered that it actually turns out, this is a great way to build some space between the sometimes misplaced excitement of a new idea and the reality of ideas that actually align with my goals.
So keep a list of ideas somewhere. Make it easy for you to add to this list. Think about the places and activities where you tend to brainstorm, even if you don’t intend to. I’ve heard of people who have a waterproof pad in their shower because they discovered that they always come up with ideas in the shower. For me, oddly, I have tons of ideas when I’m lying down. I can’t write on paper this way so I need to be able to record ideas on my phone.
Be intentional about personal creative archaeology. This not only builds up your prospective list of creative side projects but it helps inform your perspective.
Whenever you come up with something, jot it down. Don’t feel pressured to work on it right away, or ever. If you do this, you may realize that as it turns out, you actually have a lot of ideas after all.
Now, how to pick one? It’s really up to you but I like to give some space and time from idea inception to actually start working on a project, because sometimes I find that I get caught up in new idea lust. Ideas are bright and shiny and it feels good to discover a new one, and then think “Aha! This is it.”
But, the projects that I’ve enjoyed doing the most, the ones that have actually most often gotten to the finish line, are most typically projects that I’ve let sit and rest for a bit, to help me better decide if this is the right project for me, right now. And that’s to do with aligning with my current values and goals more than it is a matter of “which idea will people like the most?”
Thus, the beauty of the “Later” list.
A creative project is almost a bit of an oxymoron, if you think about it.
“Creative” conjures up feelings of spontaneity. “Projects” often feel more defined—on the line of creative exploration and ongoing practice, it’s close to the end, where things start to become more boxed in, more specific, less vague.
There’s beauty and magic in both.
You have many ideas in you. It’s often about understanding the conditions that make it possible for you to surface those ideas, and then to create your own frame and guidelines for success. That’s how you choose what to work on next.
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.