Is It Cheating to Have a Side Project?

“Devote yourself to an idea. Go make it happen.
Don’t you forget: this is your dream!

Go Make It Happen

Struggle on it. Overcome your fears. Smile. Don’t you forget: this is your Dream!

One of the best ways of getting energized at work is to start something outside of it. (You will gain new skills and new perspectives which will naturally attach to you as go about doing your day job). You should be spending at least 1,000 hourspreparing for a new career (Just in case that your industry goes the way of publishing, pay phones, photo finishing and the like and either disappears or radically changes to the point where there is no room for you). An article from HBR by Leonard A. Schlesinger, Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B. Brown.

To which some people commented, as Rich did, we are, in essence, idiots: “When people get excited about things outside of work they end showing up to work and going through motions just to get through a day. Everyone loses. The employee loses and the employer loses. People are not going to give all of themselves as they focus on their new outside interest.” Rich makes an extremely valid point — one that we think is worth elaborating on.

Everything we have recommended — starting something new beyond your job; putting in an hour a day to learn a new skill/profession — needs to be outside of office hours. If you do it on company time you can be fired, and quite frankly we believe you should…

If you are a PR guy who is in his office behind closed doors working on his stand up routines, instead of figuring out ways to advance the interests of his clients, you deserve to lose your job. If you are an operating systems software engineer who spends even part of the day working on her great idea for a new video game, you should be collecting unemployment. If your passion for creating something new is that all encompassing, then quit and go pursue it. It is the only honest thing to do.

Here’s why. You entered into a contract (written or implied) with the company that employs you. They promised to pay you in exchange for your time or the results of your creativity. If you are working on something else, on company time, you are not fulfilling your end of the bargain. You are stealing.

It’s that simple.

Ah, you say. I am in a creative profession and creativity does not occur only between 9 and 5 and solely within the office. What difference does it make if I use breaks during the day — or when I am stuck — to think about an outside gig, as long as I get my work done?

It’s a great question. And our answer is: it matters a lot.

If, and it is a big if, you can manage that, then great. But you darn well better make sure that you are delivering more than 100% of what you promised the boss. The more you deliver above and beyond what your “contract” calls for, the more slack you get.

When we advocate that you should prepare yourself for the next job, we’re assuming you’ll be doing it on your own time (unless your company has put you in a specific training program to prepare you for the next promotion or assignment). If you’re unfulfilled at work, then we say that you should find something fulfilling outside of it. And we mean exactly that. Outside of it. It is in addition to your day job, not instead of it.

But you do owe it to yourself to keep other irons in the fire. Your company no longer has a commitment to lifelong employment. Sad as it is, the operative contract today is that the company will discard you as soon as the economic forces tilt in that direction. Or discard the company. Or the industry. Be a good Boy Scout — be prepared! It’s the only responsible thing to do for you and your loved ones. Now you may believe with good reason that the company expects 100%, that you won’t be promoted if you don’t deliver unending hours. (Responding to emails while on your rare vacations. Holding international calls at 2 in the morning.) You may well be right.

Our point is not that you shouldn’t do this. It’s a judgment call on your part. We just believe that if you are committing your all in this fashion, then you need to be pretty darn sure that you are building transferrable expertise. And by transferrable, ideally to an entirely different industry.

The parents of Baby Boomers believed (correctly for the most part as it turned out) that the arc of their career would be continuous — perhaps staying with one company their entire life. Baby boomers left college with this thought pretty well established in our minds. And while some of us were disrupted, many of us made it to the finish line of a pension-based retirement.

Kids today don’t even consider this even a possibility. They assume a life with career disruptions, even if they don’t describe it in these terms.

What about the folks in between? Odds are you will have to reinvent yourself at least once during your working life and maybe twice. This doesn’t mean change a little. It means change of career.

It may not happen to you — but what if it does? Are you prepared?

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