Using Side Projects to Develop New Skills

It’s that time of year when people start throwing around mottos such as “New Year, new you” and announcing resolutions that will usually be completely forgotten by January 2nd. (Quitting sour gummy worms is hard, honest!)

Many New Year’s resolutions fail because they’re more about “should” than “will”. I should eat less sugar, but whether I will is something else entirely.

However, the new year is also the perfect time to set some goals for your professional development in the months ahead – particularly if you live in Australia where the long summer holiday means January can be a quiet time for many businesses. Why not invest some of that freed up calendar space and mental bandwidth towards setting up a side project or two to develop and expand your professional skills?

As with New Year’s resolutions, don’t set out to develop skills only because you think you should. Resolutions and professional goals work best when they’re not about forcing change – fighting against your own instincts and wants – but about creating the ideal conditions for your genuine interests, talents and aspirations to flourish. So, focus on those skills you actively want to develop – that might even help you to move closer to the projects, job or career you really want.

Forget about learning on the job. Client projects aren’t opportunities to learn new skills on someone else’s dime. Clients expect you to already have the necessary skills and experience. Instead, a side project can be a great way to create that learning opportunity for yourself outside of work.

A potential client looking to launch a new podcast isn’t likely to hire someone who’s never produced one before. So, if podcasting is a service or skillset you’d like to add to your professional repertoire, starting your own series on a topic that means something to you is a way to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

For example, I work as a content writer. Years ago, I taught myself HTML code, building my own website from scratch. Later on, I got to grips with how to install and customise a CMS, how to manage a hosting service, and various other related tasks.

I didn’t need to do these things. There was no job requirement, no pressing need for me to work with code. I have absolutely no intention of ever working as a web developer. It would probably have been much quicker and more efficient to pay a website developer to build a standard website for a freelancer.

But this side project was an exercise in professional curiosity; I desperately wanted to understand the digital medium I was writing for.

Building my own website as a side project required me to define exactly what I wanted to achieve, carve out the time, and set deadlines and goals. I had to want to do these projects. And I needed the discipline of a deadline to make sure I didn’t continually neglect my side projects in favour of whatever else might be trying to tempt my attention away.

But the benefits have been huge. I can’t tell you how often I’ve drawn upon all of these skills when working with clients. Knowing what is or isn’t possible with code, realising why something has gone wrong and how the client might fix it, understanding what a developer needs to achieve the best results; these are all skills that have made my job easier and provide extra value to those I work with.

Don’t panic if your side project isn’t successful – certainly in the beginning. A side project is a way for you to learn by doing. And a big part of learning how to do anything well is a willingness to make mistakes. If you do find out you’re not cut out for podcasting or coding or whatever, at least the insight won’t have come at the expense of someone else’s project.

So, what skills have you always wanted to learn? Do you have a burning idea you’re longing to try out, but the right project never seems to pop up? Is there new technology you’re desperate to experiment and play with?

Don’t wait for the opportunity to magically appear. Create the project yourself. After all, you’re the one who will benefit.

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