By MARY H. K. CHOI l Wired Oct.6, 2012
You are overwhelmed, overscheduled, and dejected, because you keep trying to have it all—or at least most of it. You want a fulfilling job and personal life, and it’s not working. The way out? Work more. Hate to break it to you, but career and home aren’t the only poles. There is another: all those beautiful, disregarded side projects.
Does that make you want to pitch your desk lamp straight into my face? Fair. But that itchy desire only means I’m right. Obviously, neglecting your family and home eventually gets them both confiscated by people with clipboards and badges. But if you want to be a maker of things—or at minimum avoid a quietly desperate life in front of the television—you have a responsibility to head down to the workshop. Even the coolest jobs get stultifying with repetition, and the only way to break that cycle is to bring another job into the mix.
In fact, the cooler the day job, the more important it is to get outside of it. “If Marvel Comics asks you to write Spider-Man, it’s an honor of the highest order,” says Brian Michael Bendis, writer of flagship Marvel titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers. But Bendis has also created a bunch of his own comics, including the police procedural/superhero book Powers. “For me, having both Powers and Spider-Man is best. With creator-owned projects, there are a million ways to do a million things on every page. You’re looking for a truly unique idea, and when you find one, you have to wrestle it to the ground. It’s hard.”
And it’s supposed to be. Have passion, yes, but acknowledge that side projects are still work. They shake things up, just like switching up your workout helps you stay one step ahead of your torpid metabolism. They scramble the synapses. It’s bracing stuff.
Even better, side projects can lead to a whole new life. Tina Roth Eisenberg started the blog Swissmiss in 2005 as a sort of proto-Pinterest, a visual archive of things she thought were well designed. That little side project turned into a design studio with the Museum of Modern Art and the Food Network as clients. Eisenberg loved it … until she didn’t. What kept her enthusiasm up was a bunch of different side gigs: a lecture series, a list-making app, a temporary-tattoo business. Eventually those jobs turned into moneymakers—and let Eisenberg stop working for clients. “People call me the queen of accidental businesses,” Eisenberg said in a recent speech. “While I was really thinking about what makes me happy, I realized, wait a second: I’d done it—just on the side.”
Not every story will end as happily as Eisenberg’s, but reinvigorating a job with another job can be habit-forming. That’s why movie stars take to the stage. It’s probably why Mad Men star Jon Hamm plays the voice of a talking toilet on Bob’s Burgers. Stripped of the responsibility to panic over the microcrises of something that has become, on a macro scale, boring, your brain can find new ways to focus. You start a new gig, and every crisis is macro. It’s never boring. And the skills you learn dealing with the new job port over to the old one. “A couple of times a year Marvel gets together. We workshop our book ideas in a big, tough room,” Bendis says. “But the second we walk out, we’re talking creator-owned stuff.” For Bendis, the Marvel retreat is a chance to reconnect with his mainstream work and learn about the crazy, off-the-wall stuff that his colleagues are working on. Side projects are an engine for generating more, better ideas. And that’s good. Unless your idea is just another take on Fifty Shades of Grey. The world’s all set on those, thanks.