2018: The Year of Side Projects

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I recently wrote a blog post that gained some traction on Medium and on my personal blog. What I’ve inferred from the overwhelming response (both via public messages and private emails) is that I’m not so alone in how I feel about the self-improvement industry. We’re being inundated with advice on how to be our best selves but we’re struggling to define what our best self even is.

After some thought, I figured out a way (at least for me) on how to combat this problem: Make more stuff. And in 2018, that’s exactly what I plan on doing.

Why Do You Want to Make Stuff?

The best way to explore your likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses is to experiment.

For example, if you’re a blogger, you have such a wide variety of tools to experiment with — topic, medium, syntax, tone, pace, etc. Challenge yourself to not just be a one-trick pony but the whole frickin’ ethically-sanctioned-circus.

Having projects on the go forces you to learn how to learn. You learn how to think for yourself. You learn how to work through challenges you’ve never come across before. You learn how to search for answers without bothering someone else. At the most fundamental level, it’s not so much about the nature of the hobby, but rolling up your sleeves and doing the real work of solving your own problems and appreciating what you know and what you don’t know.

Zat Rana at Design Luck wrote a great article on lessons learned from Bruce Lee. Rana argues that in order to think like no one else (and stop regurgitating the same old tired advice), you have to learn how to think for yourself. In order to get to that point, you need to put in the work to trust your own thought process. Part of that is acknowledging that no single, pre-existing dogma will have all of the answers and you need to develop confidence in the way that you think. This only comes from discovery.

What Stuff Do You Want to Make?

This leads me to my next point. While writing is wonderful and I still plan on writing articles, I want to work on a creative skill that’s inherently rooted in logic. I’ve decided, this year, to teach myself code. I don’t want to be the next big programmer, but learning basic coding languages and working on my own personal programming projects will be a great way to see my development in real time. In high school, I actually taught myself some basic coding languages (and helped other high school kids online), but the interwebs have changed during the 11 years between then and now.

Since I’m also a bit nuts about personal finance, I’ve decided to spend as little money as possible on this passion project. I recognize this may not be feasible down the road, especially if I create a MVP that requires me securing a domain, server, etc., so I’ve set a hard budget of $100 for the rest of the year. I want to demonstrate that it’s feasible to learn something new without forking over a ton of money. You don’t need to spend $500 on a course for someone to teach you when you can teach yourself.

Since I started learning how to code a few weeks ago, I’ve taught myself the core elements of html, CSS and Javascript (jQuery). I’ve built a page already solely on the aforementioned three languages/libraries. I’ve run into an endless amount of problems that I’ve had zero idea how to solve and, safe to say, Google and Stackoverflow are my two new best friends.

To hold myself accountable, I’ve also joined WIP Chat and use Telegram to chat with (more experienced) makers who are working on their own stuff. The community chat is a great way to receive feedback on your projects and ask questions on how to fix certain coding problems. Most of the people I encounter in this chat are self-taught “indie” coders, which facilitates an underlying sentiment that it doesn’t matter what coding language you use (simple or complex) — if it works, it works. The people are inspiring to say the least (and most have made six-figure projects building cool stuff they love).

Don’t Wait for Someone Else’s Permission

I remember when I first started working at my current job. I had only been a lawyer for six months and my experience was limited to one very specific area of law, which never required the attendance of mediations. In my current position, I attend mediations about as much (maybe even slightly more) as I attend hearings. Anyone who has done both knows that both require totally different, and often opposite, skills.

I was nervous as hell during my first mediation. Will my client, the mediator, opposing counsel and god knows who else see that I have no idea what I’m doing? What if I say too much? What if I don’t say enough? How do I know that this is the best settlement I can get for my client? How do I know that I’m negotiating properly? And so I did what every other (new) lawyer did — I faked it until I made it (it sorta worked).

It was uncomfortable, challenging, and in all honesty everyone probably knew I was inexperienced, but the amount I learned by just doing instead of reading about how to do it, mulling over my “strategy” (fun fact: I had none) and talking to others was immense. If you don’t know how to swim, calculating the depth of the pool, measuring its length and width, and thinking about whether you’re going to try the back stroke or front stroke will only get you so far. At some point, you’re going to have to stop clinging to the side and just… figure it out.

Will This Make Me Better?

Writing online has, unequivocally, made me a better lawyer. At first, I thought that this was completely weird. Now, this makes complete sense.

Whether it’s on my blog, Quora or Medium, having some semblance of an audience facilitates immediate feedback. For free, I practice the Art of Storytelling. It’s pretty much free testing for the job that pays the bills. How can I make my arguments more succinct? How can I structure my sentences so they flow organically? How can I create a narrative that will captivate my audience? Cut out all the fluff and you basically have the main elements of my job. I get to work on all of this while writing about things that interest me. #jackpot

If all I learn from coding languages is to trust my gut when it comes to tackling new and different challenges, then that’s good enough for me. If you’re interested in seeing what I’m working on, you can check out my WIP profile. Now, on to making stuff!

This was originally published on jennifertchan.net, where you can find more of my musings on work, money, productivity, and happiness.

Written by

Productivity, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of excellence at work. Writing now at jennifertchan.substack.com.

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