Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter

Big Ideas

The 5 Types of Personal Projects (And How You Can Justify Pursuing Them)

Side projects aren't a waste of time, as long as you undertake the right ones.

We all have intriguing side projects that we want to pursue—and a zillion reasons stopping us. The big one? They’re a flat out waste of time that don’t pay anything upfront and do little to immediately advance our careers.  

However, if you can look at personal projects as investments offering long-term benefits, you’ll find that they are an important part of your growth and development. They provide value in many forms, from a potential future commission to bolstering your artistic toolkit to giving you the freedom to run wild with your beloved, batty ideas, unafraid of a client’s critique. So how do you differentiate between the kinds of personal projects worth undertaking and the ones best left to your imagination? By pursuing the ones that ultimately benefit your craft and career like these five types below.

1. The “crazy idea that could lead to a big future commission” project 

If you’re selling yourself as a creator, then you need to actually create content—not just fulfill assignments. Veteran photographer Tim Tadder knows this, which is why he self-funds a few of his own shoots every year. Tadder looks at them as marketing tools, a way to experiment with his own concepts and give companies more ideas about why they should hire him. Brands certainly notice. “The more personal projects I do, the better my year looks,” says Tadder.

Image by Tim Tadder, who shot this as part of a personal project portfolio.

Image by Tim Tadder, who shot this as part of a personal project portfolio.


Image by Tim Tadder, taken for a Cerveza Victoria campaign, inspired by Tadder’s personal project.

This past year, he photographed and directed a shoot inspired by Mexican street festivals on land behind his Southern California home that had been scorched by a fire, giving it a post-apocalyptic feel. After posting his “Las Muertas” portfolio on Bēhance, Tadder heard from the Mexican beer company Cerveza Victoria, who commissioned him to produce something similar for one of their ad campaigns. So do like Tadder and make the next side project that you would ultimately want to make with a company. After all, you’re hired for the work you’ve done, not necessarily the work you want to do.   

2. The “I’m scratching an itch project” project

What’s the idea that gets you talking really quickly, the one stuck in the back of your head that you return to again and again? For me as a 25-year-old freelance writer, it was Jeffrey, the third-generation owner of his family’s Lower East Side butcher shop. Jeffrey had a Cheshire cat grin, lived on a diet of cigarettes and Mylanta, and, when asked about things like how he learned his trade, would bluntly say things like, “If you’ve cut a million chickens, you know how to cut a chicken” but with a lot of “F” words. I loved unique characters, and he certainly fit the bill. So I asked him if I could work weekends at his shop and write a profile of him. No, I wasn’t writing it for any publication, I added, just an aspiring journalist trying to do stories I thought were cool.

It was about me doing the kind of story I wanted to do on my terms.

Jeffrey said sure—he thankfully didn’t care that I was a newbie without an assignment. I know that because when I showed up the next four weekends he threw me a blood-stained apron and put me to work using lots of extremely sharp blades. It was awesome, if not cold—my note-taking fingers were in a constant frozen state from the meat locker and metal trays. The best part was that when it came time to write the story, I didn’t have an editor reining me in. I could write as many words as I felt it took to tell the story—3,692 in this case.

I spent weeks perfecting the narrative, even though it had no real shot at publication, editors being not that interested in a 3,692-word story about a butcher. However, the whole experience made me feel like a writer. I was doing the longform stuff that “real” journalists did. In the end, I sent it to my parents and a girl I was trying to impress. My parents loved it, and the girl never really got it, but this really wasn’t about them or their reaction. It was about me doing the kind of story I wanted to do on my terms, and it remains one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done.

3. The “I’m getting myself unstuck from a rut” project

If you’re starting to feel smothered from pumping out the same kind of artsy chow every day, try picking up something that allows you to escape your creative logjam. It worked for Brian Davis, who runs DocRiot, a Los Angeles production company that primarily makes marketing videos for brands like Fed Ex, AMC, and Kia. Last year, Davis got tired of producing stuff he thought was great, only to see it dismantled during the editing process to fit brand constraints. “I wanted to do something where I had total control to make the creative decisions,” he says. “That prompted me to start looking for a feature film project.”

Image courtesy of The Million Dollar Duck

Image courtesy of The Million Dollar Duck

But Davis didn’t go Hollywood. He went in the opposite direction and decided to direct The Million Dollar Duck, a documentary about a subculture of obsessive artists who compete in a nationwide competition to have their duck paintings chosen by the U.S. government for the annual duck hunting license stamp.  (Think Best in Show for duck painters.) Davis’s challenges ranged from whether it would be terribly boring because it was about people making stamps to, will anyone watch it? Embedding himself in the lives of his characters, Davis spent weeks in the Dakotas filming in ponds and duck stands…and loved it.

The enthusiasm seeped through to the film, a heartwarming tale about everyday folks single-mindedly chasing something that, frankly, no one else even knows exists. In January, the Discovery Channel bought the rights to the film and plans to air it on Animal Planet, but Davis’s real win came from being able to refresh his creative mindset at a frustrating point in his career. “There was a joy, a positive gain, from just being so passionate about making the film,” he says.  

4. The “I’m adding a new tool to my toolbox” project

Sometimes a personal project can be a stepping stone to a bigger project down the road. For instance, when I was in college I decided to write a book with my younger brother. Titled Dysfunction Junction, it revolved around a fictional family that maybe too closely resembled our own. At that point, I had never written anything more serious than a term paper, but I was determined to become an author, so I figured that I better get my rookie crack at a novel out of the way, so I could get on to my second book, the improbable best-seller, by the time I was old, like 25.

For months, my brother and I passed chapters back and forth. We edited scenes, added jokes that we were sure our grandma would kill us for if she realized they were about our family, and came up with 100-some pages of text—a completed book.

Personal projects allow you to add to your artistic toolbox. 

That first manuscript never got published (shocker!). But, by taking a shot at a book, I realized that I could tackle something of that scale. A few years later when I took a more serious stab at writing my second book, the whole process seemed far less daunting than if I hadn’t had that first floundering effort under my belt. Dysfunction Junction allowed me to add to my artistic toolbox (in the safety of anonymity), so I had the proper tools when I needed them for a far more ambitious future project.

5. The “I’m on vacation” project

The next time you’re on vacation, take advantage of all the work you can get done. Wait, before you click back to Twitter, bear with me. While working on vacation seems antithetical to the whole idea of vacation, it’s worth considering given your destination. If you’re a photographer, and you’ve gone on an adventure around Iceland, why not shoot a portfolio of your travels? Or, if you’re an illustrator and you’re headed to India, why not let the bright colors be your muse and draw your interpretation of the scenery right in front of you? Since you’re on vacation, you don’t have to worry that you’re spending your time on something that isn’t making money. 

Since you’re on vacation, you don’t have to worry that you’re spending your time on something that isn’t making money.

And, you don’t have to necessarily burn the candle at both ends. This is a go-at-your-own pace project and the overarching goal is to explore your surroundings by doing something you love (after all, sometimes you just need a new perspective). At best, you might return home with a new idea to bring to a client. Otherwise, you’ve got a cool keepsake—your own artistic take on a corner of the world.

Does your idea fall in here? Then it’s worth pursuing! And if you’ve got an argument for another kind of personal project worth pursuing, we invite you to share below.

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

Comments (16)
blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Big Ideas

Alain Sylvain
Stack of colored notecards.
Audience at 99U's annual conference
a figure with a ponytail looks at a screen with different themed shows like
Illustration by The Project Twins