August 5, 2016

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Nicole Zhu’s Reading, Writing and Chronicling—at a Proactive Pace



What are you working on—on the side?

My longest-running side project (now in the middle of Year 3) is reading 52 books in 52 weeks. Last April, I also participated in #The100DayProject run by Elle Luna and “The Great Discontent”, and wrote 750 words every day for 100 days. Then in November, my sister and I collaborated on a project called “write your sibling” in which we mailed each other handwritten letters each day over the course of 30 days. (If you can’t tell, I’m really into numerical projects.)

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I don’t make my side projects particularly precious. Initially, I was reluctant to ever start working on side projects, because I wanted to wait until the perfect moment, say when I was on vacation, to start them. But the reality is that there is no good time to start working on a project, because inevitably life is going to make it difficult to keep up that initial momentum.

It’s important to develop a routine in which the side project is a priority—and then stick to that routine. I think I gravitate towards numerical projects precisely because they are quantifiable, and therefore, more easily broken down into chunks. Thinking too big picture can be daunting and incapacitating, but by focusing only on the immediate things in my control, I find that I can tackle the project without it feeling like a massive task. And side projects should never feel like chores.

Finding some sort of accountability is also helpful for ensuring that I actually make progress on my side projects. I am a huge productivity nerd so I love documenting, tracking and sharing what I do. I track all the books I read in a spreadsheet (for metadata) and on Goodreads. I used 750words.com to keep up a writing streak and posted daily excerpts to Instagram. The “write my sibling” project was also cross-posted to Medium.

Why have a side project?

Side projects allow me to pursue hobbies and interests that I genuinely love and want to develop, but they aren’t necessarily connected to my day job. I studied computer science in college and I’m now working as an engineer, so I don't always have the opportunities to explore other pursuits like reading and writing. I started tackling side projects because I was constantly making resolutions to “write more” or “wishing I had more time to read,” when in reality, I had the time, but I just wasn’t allocating it in meaningful ways. I think it’s easy to think that you’re too busy to do the things you really love, and side projects are a great way to prove yourself wrong.

I’m also a strong proponent in the belief that a large quantity of work is necessary for quality work. I really love this quote by Cheryl Strayed on writing:
“You have to surrender to your mediocrity, and just write. Because it’s hard, really hard, to write even a crappy book. But it’s better to write a book that kind of sucks rather than no book at all, as you wait around to magically become Faulkner. No one is going to write your book for you and you can’t write anybody’s book but your own.”
Side projects are fun, because they’re another avenue for you to produce or make or consume cool shit. In a lot of ways, my side projects make sure that I don’t worry about quality, but instead focus on process and experimentation. At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for building up a body of work and gaining experience in any ways you can come up with.

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Images courtesy of Nicole Zhu.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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