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The Power of Personal Projects

From the day we are born, the world tries to pigeon-hole us and influence our identity. It starts with our gender and is closely followed by the location where we grow up. We are all culturally shaped by our environment, our parents and our peers. Sometimes uncomfortably so. As we grow older, we are expected to specialise in our studies and choose a specific career path. It’s hard not to be put in a box and we gladly go along with it because ultimately, society expects us to earn a living. Yet most people are much more interesting than that. We all have diverse interests and unique skills yet few people can fully express themselves in their chosen careers. How can we reverse this and be true to our multi-dimensional selves?

Without throwing everything away and running off to be an artist (I’ve tried that and quickly ran out of money), personal projects are an opportunity for anyone to break out of the restrictions they live within. If only more companies were like Google, encouraging all employees to use 20% of their time for new thinking and exploration that goes beyond their job descriptions. What if we devoted 20% of our personal time to doing something completely different? Many people in creative industries have realized the value of unhindered experimentation. Photographers and illustrators often take time out to do work that’s purely personal. With no brief and no client, they can explore new paths and release pent up frustrations that come with working to order. Quite often it can unlock fresh thinking that can benefit their commercial work.

Having your own project leads to personal growth and a sense of fulfillment which doesn’t always come from the daily job. It's a chance to explore a side of ourselves that rarely sees the light of day and doesn’t necessarily have to be a creative endeavour. In fact, it's even possible that a personal project could become a whole new career. In 1995, a guy in San Francisco called Craig was working for a brokerage company and spent some of his spare time on this new thing called the internet, helping friends stay informed about local happenings with an email list. Before long, it turned into something bigger than he imagined and today it's a US$500 million business. Craigslist began as a personal project. So what project would you like to spend some time on?

Mark Zuckerberg assigns himself a new personal project every year. Last year it was to create an AI assistant for his home. Previously, he spent a year learning Mandarin which he put on display during an interview he did in China. You might say that as a billionaire he can easily take time out to do these things. But the truth is, we all can find some time to do something challenging to stretch ourselves a little. Research has shown that the average person spends nearly two hours on social media every day. That’s over 5 years of your life spent scrolling through endless pictures of friends or pets. TV is worse, sucking up almost 9 years of our lives. So when you say that you don’t have time to do something you’ve always dreamt of doing, it’s just an excuse.

At the start of this year, I made a decision to do something I had originally decided to do when I was 25 and put off due to laziness. That was to write science fiction. Writing my first book, The UX of ME, in 2016 was an interesting exercise but was really more of a professional project. Now I wanted to do something truly personal. So I set myself a goal to write and publish one science fiction short story every month for six months. To make sure I stuck to my personal promise, I even announced this to everyone on Facebook - so I had no excuse. I developed a theme for my scifi series and created an alter-ego to be the author. Christopher Hart was born and the result was the OUTMODE series, an exploration of the impact of artificial intelligence on the human race, six short stories with a twist of humour. The last in the series came out at the end of June. Today they are published together on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks as a collection.

Harder than finding the time to write a 6000-7000 word story each month has been the fear of putting something out there for everyone to see. It’s like busking in the nude not knowing if your songs suck or whether you can even play a guitar. But I guess that I’ve reached the point when I’ve stopped worrying. Whether it’s a success or not, it did something amazing to the inner workings of my mind. Now I believe that anything is possible and realised that I’m actually more disciplined than I ever imagined.

It’s addictive too, so now I’m working on a trilogy of novels (sorry, I mean Christopher Hart is). While he does that I’ll continue the day job, which I still love by the way, even if it isn’t as fulfilling as doing something for myself.

If you’re keen to read the result of my personal project, the store links are below along with the official website link. But more than anything, I encourage you to find your own personal project. It could be for charity, it might be about health & fitness or it might be something creative. It doesn’t have to be public like mine, it can be a totally private endeavour. Whatever it is - just make it happen. You won't regret it.

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