Dan Benjamin on Back to Work:
“I don’t believe it’s possible to have a side business. I don’t think you can have a business on the side. I don’t think you can go to work and have a job and then come home and run a business. I believe that both the job and the side business… you will never reach your potential in either of them, *and* it will affect your personal life as well. Now, it might be possible to have a business and run a business and by some measure say it’s successful and that you’re making some money. But I don’t believe that it’ll ever reach its potential, you’ll never reach your potential in the things that you do if you’re that divided.”
This appears to say the exact opposite of what my speech at re:build 2011 got at; I argued that meaningful side-interests and projects were a great thing. However, I agree with Dan on this: you will never reach your full potential in thing A or B if you do them both instead of focusing on one. But I think that’s totally cool; partially realized potential is nothing to sneeze at. I’m a proponent of what might be called focused dabbling.
Consider music, as a performing art. For the vast majority of people in the world this is a hobby. A very tiny minority focus on it to the extent that it becomes their primary occupation. It would in fact be rather questionable advice to suggest that everyone who bangs at a keyboard or plucks at strings in their bedroom should go full bore on it, shooting for Carnegie Hall or bust. A hobby-level interest brings joy to a huge number of people in the world (where by interest I mean affinity, time, and effort).
It’s not just that playing music is an enjoyable activity, either. Smart, challenging hobbies tends to affect your thinking on all matters. Even a completely passive, spectator-level interest in sports, with absolutely no desire to get out there and swing the bat or toss the ball yourself, develops your thinking on strategy and drama. A baseball fan doesn’t just see everything as a baseball metaphor; they see things others don’t see because they are a baseball metaphor.
Dan talked about two businesses, specifically; I’m expanding this to a more general discussion of things that occupy your time. What makes a hobby a business is whether you can make money with it, and we all probably agree that it would be great if we could make money with our pastimes. Focusing specifically on the money-making aspect is a recipe for headache, but a smart person who already makes money at their “day job” has a lot of low-stress options for making money with a hobby these days. Will it be enough money to cover the recording of that album, the writing of that book, the making of that app? Maybe not. But with hobbies, you have to count the pleasure you derive from the effort as income; substantial income, too, otherwise you’d be better off with another hobby.
The hardest thing for humans to persuade each other of is priorities. Should you be an exercise freak? A computer wiz? A classical-literature buff? A badass hiker? A game maker? A dedicated volunteer? A great cook? These are all worthy activities, each enriching your life and likely the lives of others. Our pasts lead us to a mix of a few obsessions, and hopefully we keep our minds open to many more. Those of us who commit to honing that one art may index excel at it. But for my doomed attempt at convincing you of how to arrange your life, I suggest a solid interest in, oh, three or five Big Things. They will compete for your attention, and the vagaries of fate will lead you toward one, then another. Things you learn in the first will improve you in the second, then bring you to a whole new third. You will be a happier and better person for branching out a bit.