A Little on the Side: How a Side Project Can Re-ignite Your Love of Work

If you read my LinkedIn profile summary, you’ll see I try to do lots of things. I’m definitely not alone in this: and more is not better! It’s hard to summarise your working life (anyone who has tried to write their resume after a break of 10 years knows this very well!) and it always ends up being a reductive process, but what you’ll see is that I’m involved in a few different businesses (career development, risk and compliance, corporate communications, leadership and culture), as well as working in the community sector. Each can be challenging (even incredibly difficult) at times – and I need it to be like this for my own mental health. I’ve got an anxious mind and I dig myself into a hole very quickly by focusing on too little a range of things. So I find this way of working deeply rewarding. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly the right way for me. How did I get here? And why does it work for me?

Part of the answer for me is the concept of “Flow”. More on this below.

Soon after leaving school I came to realisation that I really didn’t have a clue about what to do with my life. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – like a lot of people, my final year at school involved many, many things different pursuits and interests – study, sport, drama, art, cadets – you name it. And I loved it! Not all the time, but I really did genuinely love nearly all of it. And it was mostly the variety that I loved. If I was struggling with getting motivated to study, there was always the relief of art classes – if one part of it was getting me down, there was always something else to take my mind off it and provide some perspective and relief. When I left, all that was gone with nothing to replace it without my own effort. It took me many years of frustration to realise that I couldn’t just wait for the conditions at school to happen again, that I needed to create those conditions for myself.

After a lot of thinking, trying, failing and struggling, that’s what I did. I thought very deeply about the work that really absorbed me. Not just what sort of work I tolerated, but the work that I could do happily in downtime as well as work time. To put it all into place (a lifetime process by the way that I work on all the time), I taught myself very basic web design, started a business, then started another, then became an associate of another, then helped start another. I also – and I think this is really important – didn’t turn my back on my training as a lawyer. Now I just use these skills in a way that gets me out of bed (rather than fills me with dread!). Not all of these things make a lot of money and the work in each is not glamorous. But that’s not the point – being interested, engaged and motivated by my work is the aim – to me, all the trappings – cars, houses, boats etc – is fluff.

The thing that binds all these strands together is that they all help people in some way. And they’re all fairly conceptual and cerebral. If you know me, that makes a lot of sense (and if you want a laugh, or become appalled very quickly, watch me try to do any handy work around the house). And I keep doing it because it helps me remain in flow.

What’s “Flow”? “Flow” is a mental state characterised by a feeling of absolute absorption and focus, as well as enjoyment. Many adults have had the feeling – perhaps in their youth – and are constantly searching for the same feeling again. 300px-challenge_vs_skill-svg *Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work (the Hungarian psychologist credited as being the originator of the flow concept), is applied by people across a lot of fields.  The above diagram is from his 1997 book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. 

At it’s heart, my purpose is to make the best use of my potential. Too many of us are miserable in our work – when for those looking outside in, there is a lot to be happy about. A nagging feeling that you are not quite doing what you should be doing is often the root of this unhappiness. This realisation is hard to get to and difficult to express, let alone do anything about. What works for me is talking it out – and, if you’re not feeling great, look back at when you felt really good. There are lessons there for what you really need right now. I like to think I’m an ethical kind of person. And I believe that maximising your potential is the best thing you can do for the world. It’s also a lot more fun!