When people sign up for my newsletter, they instantly receive an automated email that asks them: “What’s one thing you struggle with?” Some consider this a marketing trick, but for me, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to talk to readers, say hi and try to help them however I can.
Nevertheless, it does have a research benefit to it: I see which problems keep coming up and what bothers my audience the most. I’ve written so much by now, that most of the time, I can recommend a particular resource for any given issue.
Recently, one question kept coming up, which I found myself unable to send people a resource for. It’s a question about projects. A question about starting. Here are three reader responses, all from this week, aimed at it:
“I want to start a business, but hardly have the money or the idea for it!” –Vishal
“I started learning magic tricks long ago, but I never take the time to share my tricks online. There are a few on youtube and I really wanted to share more.” –Flavien
“Being disorganized and lacking focus. I’m a certified NLP trainer and looking to start my own business as a Learning Coach for children. Yet I spend my days on chores, cooking and computer based admin stuff.” –Megan
Can you spot the question? Here’s the one I see: “How do I start a passion project?“
Today, I’ll do my best to answer it. But first…why is it that question?
Passion Projects Are The Unlock
This blog started one day at a time. My coaching career started one day at a time. So did Four Minute Books. And my football freestyle practice. Freelance writing. Or any other passion project of mine.
Some of these turned into businesses. Some didn’t. A few became temporary income. Even fewer long-term income. Part shaped how I work. Part what I want to work on. Most of them started, lasted for a while, and then ended.
Right now, it looks like their sum will change the trajectory of my life in ways I never could have imagined. The one thing they all have in common, that lays at their very foundation, is a single sentence:
“This would be fun.”
I didn’t always recognize all of these as passion projects right when I started them. But looking back, I can wholeheartedly say: I really believed they’d be fun to try. Every time.
What this allowed me to do is focus on fun over financials. The longer I could let money be a desired byproduct, instead of a desired end product, the more my projects ultimately ended up making.
So whether you hope to gain meaning, money, connection, career prospects, a life’s work or a legacy out of your project, first ask:
Maybe you know exactly what that fun thing is you want to start. Maybe you don’t. I hope you keep the fun part on top of your mind either way. Now, let’s look at how to start a passion project in 3 steps, based on the structure proposed in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why.
- Will this be fun?
- Step #1: Why start this project in the first place?
- Step #2: How do I get started? I don’t know what step to take!
- 1. What do you call someone, who is already doing the thing you want to do?
- 2. What’s the main thing an X does?
- Step #3: What do I do every day? How can I make this part of my routine?
- 1. Use existing structures, or none at all.
- 2. Turn pro from the start.
- Recap: How to start a passion project one day at a time
Step #1: Why start this project in the first place?
If I were to start a new passion project today, the first thing I’d do is ask myself “Why?” three times. Actually, more like ten times. Once a project idea passes the fun test, it’s your responsibility to talk yourself into it. To do that, you’d be well off coming up with as many reasons as possible.
For example, some reasons for starting to answer questions on Quora are:
- It’ll be fun.
- You’ll be forced to write about new things.
- You can dramatically vary the format of your writing.
- You’ll see how lots of other good writers write.
- You will learn about new topics.
- You get direct feedback through upvotes and comments and even edit suggestions.
- You’ll build credibility as a writer.
- You might break into a big publication, as they search the platform for good content.
- You’ll draw attention to your blog, newsletter, or whatever else you’ve got going on.
- You can help a lot of people.
- And, again: It’ll be fun!
The reason you should spend a while on your why is simple: fun gets you going, but not to the finish line.
Even the activities we’re most passionate about suck at times. Curiosity and joy and the rush of something new are great activators, but they’re not good sustainers. To quickly go from dabbling to disciplined practice, you’ll have to continuously hold your purpose high, without losing sight of the fun parts that follow the dark valleys.
Writing down all the reasons you can think of to start your project is a great 80/20 exercise in finding your why, because it’s simple, doesn’t take long, yet strongly manifests your project in your mind.
Then, when the laughter temporarily runs out, meaning will take over and march with you through the long nights before the light comes back on.
Step #2: How do I get started? I don’t know what step to take!
For some people, even coming up with an idea for a passion project is tough. Chances are, you’re past that and have a certain, if somewhat blurry picture in mind. But now you have to figure out the first step.
This is where most passion projects go to die. I repeat: This – the part where you go from “I want X” to “I’ll do Y to start getting there” – is where most passion projects go to die.
In terms of the dip, the slog of increased effort where work gets harder, but results are slow to non-existent, this puts you at the very beginning. You’ve done all the thinking, the contemplating, the deciding that “you’re gonna do it,” maybe even some actual planning or at least busywork.
So now, you’re standing atop the tiny hill, right where the fun’s about to stop. You know what you want.
But not how to get there.
What’s our most common response to this? We wait there, scratch our head for a while, and then…we quit. Before we ever got started. Two months later, all we have to show for is another depressing memory in the “failed to even swing the bat” section.
I thought long and hard about what helped me the most in starting my way downhill, into the dip, but also towards progress. The result I’ve come up with is a sequence of two drop dead simple questions:
1. What do you call someone, who is already doing the thing you want to do?
There’s always someone ahead of you on the path you’re about to take. If you were to label them, which word would you use? Give them a job title! A variant of this question is: If you succeeded, what could you call yourself?
For example, you might call someone who sells self-made jewelry on Etsy a craft e-commerce store owner, a person who likes obstacle courses and Spartan races is a runner and if your idol runs an investment blog, well, they’re a personal finance writer.
Project yourself into the near-future, imagine a 3-5-years-from-now-world in which you succeed, and label that job.
2. What’s the main thing an X does?
With this image in mind, you can ask the second question, which, like a laser, cuts right through all the associations you might have with it, and zones in on the fundamentals. They key. The defining trait.
If the answer is obvious, you’ve done it right. It should be!
- A craft e-commerce store owner makes jewelry and sells it online.
- A runner runs.
- A blogger writes.
When I started this blog, you know what I did first? I set up the website. Then I designed it. I even bought a logo, for Pete’s sake. I made the structure. Turned on pop-ups. All of that was bullshit. The only thing I should have done for at least 30 days is write.
Write, write, write.
The easiest way to start is to forget all the best practices, all the make-pretend to-dos and just do the thing, the actual activity, the crucial part of what makes a writer a writer, a singer a singer, and a stock analyst a stock analyst in the first place.
And then? Then you do just that.
Step #3: What do I do every day? How can I make this part of my routine?
This is where the meat hits the grinder. It’s up to you to be the grinder, not the meat. Two ways to make that happen:
1. Use existing structures, or none at all.
Making your passion project public comes with many advantages, such as built-in accountability, feedback and a better shot at financial upside. But it should never get in the way of you doing the work. So, for all creative pursuits, use the structures available to you:
There’s a platform for any conceivable passion project out there, and for the 0.0001% chance there isn’t, you can always build it later.
Either way, it might make sense to find out if you’re good at it first, don’t you think? So just do it for yourself. Get intimate with the craft. Let it be just you and your project. And then…
2. Turn pro from the start.
Standing on top of the hill is a great opportunity: it is the moment to flip the switch from fun to pro. To take that activity that defines your project and own it. The goal is to approach what you do with a beginner’s mind, yet act like a seasoned pro in how you do it.
Spend 30 minutes a day doing the activity.
Yes. A day. I am dead serious. Every. Single. Day. There’s no way around this. No matter your level of aspirations. Why?
Because that’s what a leader, a creator, an entrepreneur does. E-ve-ry day. There is no substitute for work.
Whether you want to be hobby writer or a full-time author, you might as well be a good one. And a good writer will always be defined by the number of days he shows up to write. Nothing else matters. It’s not even about making more noise, but enough noise to find your signal in the first place. And that takes practice.
Here are the top 4 pointers for turning pro:
- Do it in the morning. Not because of some magical morning routine, or because successful people do it. But because for each 24 hour period, the more it advances, the less likely it becomes. That’s just how the human brain and willpower work.
Schedule a meeting with yourself. Make those late nights optional, not obligatory. Imagine how great you will feel for the rest of the day, knowing you have put in 30 solid minutes of writing before work. Now imagine how guilty you’ll feel all day, knowing you have yet to put in 30 minutes of writing. See the difference?
- Use the Pomodoro technique. Start with one a day. Working in a timed, focused, 25-minute block is powerful. Then over time, increase to two. That’s almost an hour a day of quality time chasing your deepest desires.
- Block distractions for that period. Make your life easy. Close your inbox, block distracting sites, silence your phone and note distracting thoughts to get rid of them.
Recap: How to start a passion project one day at a time
Here’s a recipe-style step-by-step of what we just went through:
- Ask “Does this sound like fun?”
- Write down all the reasons you can think of to start.
- Label the job of someone doing your passion project full time. What is the main thing they do?
- Find an existing platform to share your work or go without one altogether.
- Set a daily structure, design your environment and turn pro!
Don’t even think about money before you’ve done something for 30 days in a row. Then, still don’t. When you work on a passion project for 30, 60, 90 days in a row, magic things start to happen, all on their own.
PS: If I’ve just sent you this article as a response to your first email to me, well, you know you’re in good company. Thank you for your attention and welcome to Nik’s Newsletter. 🙂