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Success and Side Projects: How Your Hobbies and Unrelated Interests Help Your Career

By Jory MacKay · August 15, 2017
hobbies-for-success primary img

Copywriter. Designer. Illustrator. Filmmaker. With how competitive the world has become, it’s no wonder why we're obsessed with titles.

Focusing on a speciality makes you more appealing to employers and shows clearly where your skills lie. It's easier to focus on doing one thing great. Yet a growing crop of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that creative cross-training—spending time and energy on unrelated tasks, hobbies, and interests—can actually supercharge our ability to learn and grow, making us even better at all our work.

It's not just talking about complementary skills, like boxers taking ballet training to work on their footwork (I hope you’re picturing Tyson in a tutu right now like I am). Even completely unconnected tasks can empower and strengthen our ability to perform our main creative job.

Here's the excuse you need to branch out and try something new.

The Specialist Versus the Generalist

Creativity is just connecting things.

Steve Jobs

From the day we start kindergarten, it seems, we’re told to pick a niche or a specialty. "Do you want to be a firefighter, or a doctor?" they ask. That's increasingly not how we work. As the And.co team found in their latest survey, 61% of freelancers ’specialize’ in two or three talents.

Cognitive scientist Art Markman calls these people "Expert Generalists." They're often the best workers—they "have a wide variety of knowledge… [and] are able to use this knowledge to suggest new ways to look at problems [and] are also good at translating across areas of expertise."

The wider range of knowledge you have, the more dots you'll have to connect—which is how Steve Jobs explained creativity and innovation.

"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people."

That's where hobbies and outside interests come in.

Your Hobbies Create a "Ripple Effect" of Learning


Whether you spend your leisure time shooting pool with friends, playing guitar in a blues band, or knitting crochet cats, you probably think your hobby has no effect of the rest of your life. But according to San Francisco State University assistant psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman's study on the correlation between hobbies and job performance, that’s just not the case.

Practicing your hobby "gives you a sense of mastery," Eschleman explains. "You’re developing new skills, new thought processes and really challenging yourself to learn something new and develop your skill set."

While Eschleman highlights yoga, improv, and playing team sports, the hobby with the most far-reaching benefits is learning to play an instrument. The benefits of learning an instrument run the gamut from improving your memory to keeping your brain healthy as you get older. Musical endeavours can also help with one of the most important workplace skills: Writing.

For Still Writing author Dani Shapiro, childhood music lessons were "just as important as any writing workshop." Those piano lessons prepared her for a lifetime of working with words. "The phrasing, the pauses, the crescendos, keeping time, the creating of shape, the coaxing out of a tonal quality. All of these are with me as I approach the page," says Shapiro.

100 Ways to Improve your Writing author Gary Provost seconds the power of music in writing:

"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety."

"Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important."

The benefits of learning the rhythm and dynamics of music, while seemingly unrelated to writing, became a huge creative advantage to both authors. And that's far from the only hobby with crossover effects. When you take up a new hobby, the positive ripple effect of learning that new skill can reach farther than you think.

Your Weekend Side Hustle Amps You Up For the Workweek

You take so much passion and pride into your side hustle that it energizes you, and that energy flows over into your day job.

David Mulqueen

If you don’t have a side hustle yourself, you almost certainly know someone who does. Adobe’s 2016 Future of Work survey found that 56% of US workers predicted that having multiple jobs will be the norm in the near future.

This isn’t a bad thing.

Your boss might worry that your side hustle is taking away from your focus and energy at work, but modern research shows that those people who spend time on passion projects are happier, work harder in general, and are actually 12% more productive than those who don’t have an outlet for their passion. Furthermore, your side hustle can have benefits that directly tie into your job, like building your network of contacts, boosting your confidence, and boosting your own personal brand.

As entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau describes it, your side hustle is "not a part-time job as much as it's something you create, and it's disproportionately satisfying."

One example is Seattle-based digital marketer David Mulqueen whose love of winter sports prompted him to open his own snowboard school side hustle on nights and weekends. While snowboarding and running marketing campaigns might seem completely different, Mulqueen explains how one benefits the other: "I think it makes me a more well-rounded individual; you take so much passion and pride into your side hustle that it energizes you, and that energy flows over into your day job."

More than just another source of income, your side hustle is an opportunity to reinvigorate your passions, build new skills, expand your network and recharge yourself for the work week ahead.

Your Unrelated Interests Open your Mind to Innovative Ideas

toy soldier

So far, we’ve looked at practical skills like taking on a hobby or starting a side hustle, but what about the other completely unrelated interests you might have like watching anime, reading 1930s crime noir novellas or going to avante-garde art exhibits?

Turns out, these can also have a positive effect on your work and creativity.

According to a study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Scott Barry Kaufman, high levels of openness to experience—or "the degree to which someone is willing to consider and experience new ideas"—can be related to creative output.

The more rich and diverse experiences you have, the higher the likelihood of your creating something truly unique and innovative. Entrepreneur James Altucher gives the example of inventor Stan Weston, who took two seemingly unrelated interested, dolls and the army, to create the first "doll for boys" (The G.I. Joe action figure).

When asked about how he came up with his innovative idea, Weston explained: "Truly groundbreaking ideas are rare, but you don’t necessarily need one to make a career out of creativity. My definition of creativity is the logical combination of two or more existing elements that result in a new concept."

While they might seem completely unrelated to the work you do, those random interests combined with your day-to-day tasks can easily become the catalyst for uncovering something truly new and creative.

A 3-Step Guide to Setting up your own Creative Cross-training Routine

Hobbies and interests help. They just might be the creative spark you need. So how do you build them into your routine?

Here are a few ways to start creative cross-training.

1. Pick One Keystone Hobby, Hustle, or Interest

Just like training for a marathon, your creative-cross training needs to have some sort of order and system behind it. Just randomly plunking at a guitar once every few months won’t instantly make you a better writer.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg suggests commiting to a keystone habit—a routine or system that you stick to no matter what.

This could be writing 1000 words a day, practicing piano for 20min after dinner, spending your Sunday building your side hustle, or even going to an art show every week. Whatever you choose, commit to it wholeheartedly, rain or shine, hungover or sober, tired or energized.

Learn more in our guide to building keystone habits.

2. Work on More Than One Project at a Time

When creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis looked at some of the world’s most successful creatives, they found a strong connection between their output and their tendency to work on multiple projects at once. Think of Charles Darwin, who bounced between geology, zoology, psychology, and botany and worked on multiple projects for decades at a time, or web designer Dann Petty who has at least 2–3 projects on the go at any given time.

Gruber and Davis have called this melting pot of different, sometimes seemingly unrelated projects a "network of enterprises," which they say has 4 main benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The benefits from doing one make their way to the other.

  2. A fresh context is exciting. Switching between tasks keeps you excited and motivated

  3. Our ideas have a chance to incubate. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another (this is the basis of the ‘aha’ moment that seems to always happen at the strangest times).

  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. The grass is always greener on the other side, even when you’re working.

3. Create Guidelines to Keep Your Multitasking Anxiety at Bay

With multiple interests and multiple projects on the go, it's easy to never actually get anything done. There’s ample proof that we can’t really multitask.

So if you’re considering a creative cross-training routine, set it up with caution. Only take on as much as you feel you can realistically do. If you find yourself spiralling out of control stop, take a step back, and reassess your choices.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives author Tim Hartford has his own method of staying in check. He has a steel sheet in his home office covered in magnets holding 3x5 cards, each with a project that would take him at least a day to complete.

"I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top," says Hartford. "They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious."

Learn more about using messy circumstances to fuel creativity in our post about Deep Work versus Messy.

We all need a strong sense of focus to be able to do our best work. But denying ourselves hobbies, hustles, and other interests in the service of specialization can actually hold us back from doing our best.

The next time you feel a pang of guilt for spending time on something other than work, remember that you’re still moving forward.

The destination is the same, you’re just taking a new path.

Piano photo by Gabriel Barletta via Unsplash; ripple photo by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash; Toy soldier photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

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