Find your creativity and freedom with a passion project

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Woman working on her passion project at home

Do you know what a passion project is? You’ve probably heard it thrown around when friends hang out and share their life updates. Passion projects are hobbies and activities people say they wanna get into if only they had time to spare. 

Some sources say that to be truly successful in something you have to eliminate all the activities that aren’t directly related to your goal.

But here’s the thing – having a passion project is common among great minds. Albert Einstein played the violin and has loved it since he was a teenager. Billionaire Warren Buffet plays the ukulele. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo watches bees and makes honey in his spare time. 

Compared to regular scientists, Nobel Prize winners are “22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers, or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays, or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music,” according to organizational psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant.

“Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience,” he says.

This points to a different success principle – rather than focusing on just one thing, allowing yourself to explore and nurture your interests on the side can help you become more accomplished. 

Thus, passion projects help many world movers become better at what they do. Done right, it can do the same for you too.

So, let’s talk about why you might want to start a passion project and how to do that!

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What is a passion project and how is it different from a side hustle?

First things first, let’s identify the difference between a passion project and a side hustle.

For this article, we define a passion project as an activity done for creativity and curiosity. Profit and its contribution to your career goals are optional. 

Side hustle, on the other hand, is done primarily for profit.

Comparison of a passion project and side hustle.

A passion project can also be a side hustle. And a side hustle can stem from your genuine interest. But passion projects don’t have to double as side hustles. 

Simply said: your passion project doesn’t have to earn you money.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, you might be thinking: why do I have to do it if I can’t turn it into a business? Won’t that be a waste of time and energy?

Well, no. Read on to learn why.

Reasons to start a passion project + some passion project examples to inspire you

Passion projects can help you become a better person in many ways. Here’s how it’s helped other people and how you can benefit from starting a passion project, too. 

1. It’s a great way to know yourself

Felicia Sullivan is an accomplished marketing executive and award-winning author. But it wasn’t for a side project she started back when she was still on a finance job, she never would have gotten to where she is today.

Graduating with a degree in finance, Felicia had her life planned – work in corporate, build a family, buy a house, and essentially “tick off boxes until the grave”. After graduation, finding her place in prestigious institutions like JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley were natural next steps.

Years into her job, a realization came to Felicia as she was riding the subway – she didn’t want to do this for the rest of her life. But with an all-finance resume, she couldn’t make the career switch right away.

So, Felicia decided to first lean into her love for shopping and started an online store selling designer items on the side. Slowly but surely, Felicia found her way around digital marketing and brand-building. She eventually discovered what would be her life-long calling.

The lesson here: Having a passion project is a great way to discover more about yourself. By following the path to what makes you feel alive, you’ll slowly find yourself making a trail that might be different from what you’re used to following.

2. Distribute your energy

Man on a balance board

Passion and energy are great to have. But not all the time. 

In the book Ego Is The Enemy, author Ryan Holiday warns against passion. He expresses that passion can be charismatic and sexy. But sometimes, it can turn rude, overconfident, and unnecessarily obsessive.

Amelia Boone is a decorated athlete in the world of obstacle racing.  She’s won four major competitions including the Spartan Race World Championship in 2013 and World’s Toughest Mudder in 2012, 2014, and 2015. She’s sponsored by brands like Reebok, BeetElite, RockTape, and more. At the same time, she’s a full-time attorney for Apple, Inc.

Many are puzzled over how she stays effective despite having to balance two intense careers. But what most don’t realize, is that she probably thrives because of it. 

Growing up obsessive and competitive, obstacle racing teaches her to persevere despite having very little control of most situations. Through a series of circumstances, it even pushed her to confront struggles she endured behind the spotlight.

Amelia confesses on her blog:

Perhaps I’m not as type-A, control freak as I thought. Or perhaps adventure racing is teaching me how NOT to be like that. I’m growing. Growing as an athlete, growing as a professional, and growing as a person.

The lesson here: Too much passion concentrated on one thing can work against you. While it has some upsides, too much can make you blind, meddlesome, and unstable. Allowing yourself to distribute your energy to other activities can help you manage that.

3. Be a better problem solver

Man talking on a video call

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are known as the inventors of the first airplane. But what many fail to realize is that they started pretty late compared to their peers. They also had less money and education on the field, as recounted in the book Mastery by Robert Greene.

One of the biggest things that allowed the Wright brothers to crack the code of flight was their unique perspective as bicycle builders.

Before venturing into trying to build an aircraft, the brothers gained their mechanical intelligence in successfully managing their shop in Ohio. Here, they invented and sold safe bicycles that were a hit during their day.

Most teams working on their flying machines put great emphasis on stability. They likened their devices to a ship that had to stay upright despite wind movements. The Wright brothers approached it differently.

They compared their invention to a bicycle that was “inherently unstable”. Instead of focusing on the shape of the device,  they put a greater emphasis on the rider that had to learn how to keep it secure.

Cutting the long story short, deciding to focus on the pilot rather than the structure allowed the Wright brothers to achieve the breakthrough we know them for, today.

Writer, marketer, and entrepreneur Ryan Holiday holds several day jobs. Unexpectedly, he attests that it has given him an advantage when it came to problem-solving. He shares:

It almost feels criminal – the way you can pull knowledge you just absorbed in one area and immediately apply it to another.

The lesson here: Exposing yourself to more than one industry can give you unique perspectives and a variety of ways to approach situations. This can help you come up with creative ways to manage hurdles and give you an edge when your more “focused” peers get stuck.

4. Get more done

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt graduated as a magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree at Harvard University. But apart from schoolwork, he engaged himself in many passion projects.

They included boxing, wrestling, poetry,  bodybuilding, dance lessons, and even naturalism, recounted in the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. The latter so interested him that he published his first book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, in the summer after his freshman year.

To balance his many interests, Teddy developed a remarkable ability to concentrate. This allowed him to spend less time studying compared to his peers, without sacrificing his results. 

“He would read by himself in a room half-filled with noisy students without having his attention distracted even for an instant; indeed, he would make no answer to questions addressed directly to him and did not seem to hear them,” writes Philip Boffey in The Harvard Crimson.

The ability to do deep work can be likened to a muscle – as Newport says. It can be trained. But more importantly, it’s also a finite resource that needs to be replenished constantly.

For Roosevelt, engaging in many activities didn’t just push him to maximize his limited study time. It also gave him room to disengage productively.

Regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done.

Tim Kreider, essayist and cartoonist.

Resting the right way is important to avoid work fatigue and maintain productivity for the long term.

The lesson here: If you find it difficult to stop thinking about work after hours, it’s probably because you’re not occupied with anything else that’s more freeing and interesting. Allowing yourself to engage with something that refreshes you is a great way to unwind. Additionally, a passion project can help you refuel your mental energy. 

5. Learn on your own terms

Jessica Pereira is a B2B SaaS freelance writer working towards earning $10k a month while working 10 days a week. She shares her journey in her blog Freelance to Fortune, a passion project she started in the last quarter of 2020.

While Jessica loves her clients, she confesses that her blog is what really makes her excited to get up in the morning.

Clients will only pay you for your established expertise. For Jessica, that’s writing. Starting Freelance To Fortune allowed her to practice things that her clients weren’t hiring her for yet at that time: content strategy, content distribution, newsletter writing, community building, and others.

Today, Freelance To Fortune has grown into something she earns from. Along the way, she developed the skills she needs to offer them professionally.

The lesson here: While a passion project doesn’t have to turn into a profit-generating hustle, it can end being one. A passion project gives you space to diversify and develop your skills on your own terms. It’s also a great way to grow as a freelancer, a professional, or as a person.

6. Practice grit and build a growth mindset

In her book, Grit, psychologist and bestselling author, Angela Duckworth, says that talent doesn’t guarantee success. Instead, it’s grit – your ability to find your passion and follow through with your commitments in its pursuit.

The Hard Thing Rule is a policy that she and her husband implement in their home to help their children develop grit. 

The rule requires everyone in their family to pursue something “hard” – an activity that requires deliberate practice to get better. Even as parents, they weren’t exceptions. Her husband pursues running outside his real estate job, and she pursues yoga outside her job as a psychologist.

Part of the Hard Thing Rule is that everyone gets to pick their own “hard thing”. It has to be something you do, not because you need to do it, but because you want to. Once that’s settled, none of them are allowed to quit mid-way.

Allowing each member to pick their own activity, highlights the importance of going after something you like, regardless of what benefit you get from it. A rule barring giving up mid-way points out a reality that many fail to recognize – even with passion projects that you like, there comes a point that you will experience obstacles tempting you to quit.

The lesson here: Pushing forward with a passion project despite hurdles gives you a safe space to express yourself while developing grit, discipline, and a growth mindset. These are important qualities you’ll need to succeed in other aspects of your life.

How do you start a passion project?

Woman planning a passion project

Starting a passion project is simpler than what most people think:

  1. Pick something you like
  2. Start small
  3. Make time
  4. Practice setting boundaries

Passion project ideas: pick something you like

This should be the easiest step. But oddly, this is where many get stuck. You’d either have too many passion project ideas to choose from, or you can’t think of anything, really.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence at different points in my life. So, allow me to share my experience.

First, answer these questions and write as many answers as you can:

  • Who do I admire and what are they doing that I wish I did as well?
  • What fascinates me?
  • What am I curious about?
  • What websites, videos, or articles do I explore in my free time?
  • What activity have I always wanted to try?

Let your mind wander. Usually, you’re drawn to what you like when you’re relaxed. 

A man writing on post it notes

Once you have this info containing potential passion project ideas, go through them and encircle those that spark your interest. Try not to think about the time and money investment yet. Just be honest with yourself and ask Mari Kondo’s magic question for each item: “Does this spark joy?”

Now that you’ve narrowed things down, it’s time to talk logistics.

Make a table outlining the following for each prospect:

  • Ideal investment
  • Minimum investment or alternatives
  • Issues
  • Other notes

For the minimum investment or alternatives, be sure that it’s smaller than the ideal but still good enough to enjoy despite the adjustment.

“Other notes” are important. Some hobbies might require more investment to start but could still feel more compelling. That’s okay! Biases are welcome here. 

As long as it’s not illegal and is realistically within your means, go for it! Remember, this is about what you like. It doesn’t have to make sense for anybody else.

Finally, just pick one passion project idea and go for it. 

Start small

Jessica Pereira worked 25 hours a month on her blog Freelance to Fortune, when she started it as her passion project. That’s about 6.25 hours a week – just a bit over an hour a day if not working on weekends. But “if you don’t have 25 hours of extra time,” she says, “make it smaller!”.

In his revolutionary book Atomic Habits, author James Clear talks about the 2-Minute Rule. The rule states that for any new behavior you want to introduce, you’ll find it easier to be consistent if you focus on a related action that’ll take just two minutes to complete.

This makes any activity extremely easy to start.

When starting something new, the first step is to “master the habit of showing up,” J. Clear shares. Start with what you can do now and scale it later. It’s only after you’ve established consistency that you can work on improvements.

Remember that engaging in passion projects is a habit that can serve you in the long run. Allow yourself to ease into things and start and move at a comfortable pace.

Make time

Hourglass on a table

The first way to find time is to track where your current efforts are going. DeskTime is a time tracking tool that can help you see how you spend your time. 

This will put you in a good position to analyze if there are gaps you can fill or if there are activities you can opt to eliminate. Look into tasks that seem to take a lot of time. Are there ways to optimize them?

For example, if you find yourself spending a lot of time preparing your meals daily, would it be possible to do meal preps in advance? 

Sometimes, finding time might feel impossible. But once you become ruthless in scrutinizing your activities, there’s a good chance you’ll find areas you can improve and gaps you can maximize.

Using a time tracking tool like DeskTime can help you have an objective perspective on this.

Practice setting boundaries

Many fail to follow through with passion projects because they deprioritize them. Paid commitments always take priority.

I won’t argue with you if you’re sometimes guilty of this. God knows I am too. 

Of course, you shouldn’t ditch your job because you want to enroll in a beginner’s Pilates class that takes place during your work shift. Don’t sacrifice important relationships to the extent of pursuing a passion project.

But here’s a thought to contemplate on. Why are you more motivated to keep the promises you make for other people than the ones you make for yourself? 

Remember that you’re doing your passion project for no one but yourself. In a way, it’s a form of self-care. Practice setting boundaries so you can make space for what’s important to you. In the same way that you don’t want to neglect other people, make sure that you’re not neglecting yourself.

Conclusion: You can be good at more than one thing

Many success principles teach you to be ruthless when it comes to picking things to pursue. You’re told to eliminate distractions, focus on one thing, invest in skills that can help you succeed in your career.

But as you’ve seen, genius and innovation come from breadth, not just depth. 

“Being good at one thing is incredibly hard. Being good at two things seems impossible. But being good at several things can actually make things easier,” says marketing executive, bestselling author, and modern-day philosopher Ryan Holiday.

Being good at more than one thing is not just possible. It can even be good for you. Go for what you want to do. Something that excites you and piques your curiosity.

Be selective when picking a passion project, but for the right reasons. Your motivation doesn’t always have to be money or long-term career advancement. Instead, be true to yourself so you can enjoy all its benefits. 

Use DeskTime time tracking software to manage your time and energy so you can work on activities that truly make you feel alive.

This is a guest post by Hannah Donato. Hannah is a SaaS freelance writer for project management and productivity. Her works help SaaS brands become more relatable with actionable tips and relevant stories. Outside work, she’s also a pet adoption advocate, dragonboat athlete, and an FMA instructor for kids. Visit Hannah’s website and/or follow her on Twitter.

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