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The Art of the Side Project

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Society is growing ever more skeptical of the value of solitude, ever more suspicious of even the briefest of withdrawals into inactivity and apparent purposelessness – Nicolas Carr

After reading Nicolas Carr’s, “The Dream of Readers”, I started thinking about side projects in tech. The colloquial definition (and maybe this is just in my head) seems to be: a project you spend time on outside of work which you find interesting. That’s it. However, there’s seems to be one other factor people find important to side projects these days: that it bear tangible fruit. A side project that piques your imagination and curiosity doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s gotta have tangible potential. It should make you money, land you a job, hone your skill set, do something for you. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.

Is this concept just in my head? I don’t think so. I see it online a lot these days. Take a look at this selection of results from doing a search for “side project” on Designer News

That last one was interesting. Its thesis? Just because you can’t make money on a side project doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The author, however, provides a plethora of tangible, non-fiduciary results side projects can produce for you: new skill sets, career development, friends/contacts, new job. So it’s still about choosing and engaging in a project which produces a tangible result.

Here’s a similar selection of results from doing a search for “side project” on Hacker News:

Again that last one isn’t even necessarily about making money, but about the tangible, measurable benefits of doing side projects.

Unfortunately, I think this is a common yet more broad theme in tech: any outcome which is unsuited to measurement cannot have value. Descartes once said: “I think, therefore I am.” Tech’s corollary these days is: “it was measured, therefore it exists.” There seems to be a desire to make all side projects transactional. So when we talk about “side projects”, it seems we’re often talking about “work, outside of regular work, which can produce more benefits (money, acclaim, skills) on top of the ones we already get from regular work.” I’m not saying that is necessarily bad. But I do think there’s another meaning of the word “side project” that shouldn’t be conflated with this utilitarian use of the word.

The thought of a secondary definition came to me when I was reading the previously mentioned article “The Dream of Readers”:

In a 2003 lecture, Andrew Louth, a theology professor at the University of Durham in England, drew a distinction between “the free arts” and “the servile arts.” The servile arts, he said, are those “to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.” They are the arts of production and consumption, of getting stuff done, to which most of us devote most of our waking hours. The free arts, among which Louth included reading as well as meditation, contemplation, and prayer, are those characterized, in one way or another, by “the search for knowledge for its own sake.” They are aimed at no useful or measurable end, and by engaging in them we slip, if only briefly, the bonds of the practical. We open ourselves to aesthetic and spiritual possibilities. We embrace and inhabit an ideal that was once central to the idea of culture itself: “that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society.”

I think there is a meaning to the word “side project” which falls under the “free arts” rather than the “servile arts”. It’s a definition which dictates a withdrawal from productivity and dampens the urge of busyness and productivity. This, by definition, makes these kinds of side projects marginal to tech culture because they cannot be measured and assigned a value. However, far from being a sign of uselessness, to me this kind of engagement signals a profound inner activity. It is engagement for not other purpose than itself, for curiosity and imagination. There are side projects which do something for you, whose results can be measured. And there are side projects whose results cannot be measured, or if they are they appear to be zero. That’s not a bad thing.

The idea of side projects with no tangible benefits or purpose seems to have been lost. Or, perhaps it has been eliminated — eliminated by companies and agencies who have industrialized employee leisure. From an employer’s perspective, “side projects” are not leisure activities on company time. They are another form of revenue. Though perceived as leisure by the employee, it’s just a just another form of intellectual labor that can be farmed, stock piled, monetized, and sold. And the apparent successfulness of this approach appears for businesses and agencies seems to have drifted into our own personal lives. We have personal “hackathons”, but at the end you gotta ship something and it’s gotta have potential to be something. That which cannot produce something is deemed unworthy of our time.

So the next time you think about doing something, even if it’s just watching TV, don’t feel guilty that you’re not being “productive”. There’s a balance. There’s more to life than being productive, to checking off to-do lists. If that weren’t the case, then as Plato suggested, we may as well just be a community of ants or bees.