The best way to learn and to grow is to try something new, and nothing helps you learn more effectively than a side project.
The Personal MBA started as a side project / experiment - I created everything you see on this website part-time while holding a full-time day job. The Personal MBA has provided (and continues to provide) an opportunity for me to learn how to build useful websites, discover what people find valuable, conduct research, spread ideas, teach people what I know, and sell my services and expertise. Over time, it grew into a business capable of supporting my family full-time - not bad for a project that started out with zero profit motive.
Learning happens naturally when you care about what you’re doing. When you have a side project, you naturally develop a strong desire to learn new things because you discover that you need to develop your skills in order to accomplish what you have in mind.
Even the setbacks in your side project provide priceless learning opportunities. For example, I mentioned in my interview with David McKelfresh that one of my most frustrating experiences was being unable to handle all of the visitors when the Personal MBA was featured by Lifehacker in July. While the experience wasn’t fun, I ultimately learned a lot about web server optimization and Linux system administration - skills I’m now using to improve other projects. Before the issue, I had little interest in learning these skills. Now, I’m using what I learned through that experience every day.
It Starts With a Small Commitment to Experiment
The subjects you can learn via side projects are endless. Having a potential business idea will help you learn about business planning and funding. Creating a new product will help you discover better ways to identify needs, market the benefits, and close sales. Having a website or blog will help you learn how to use HTML and CSS. Having a product idea will help you learn about licensing and negotiation. Having a business to manage will give you an incentive to learn about accounting, finance, policy, and legal topics. To begin, all you need is an idea and the desire to get started - the rest takes care of itself.
By publicly committing to a side project, wonderful things happen: (1) you’re far more likely to follow through, and (2) you start developing a network of individuals who support you because they’re interested in what you’re doing.
The Personal MBA Side Project Challenge
I’m challenging you to commit to a side project that will stretch your comfort zone and encourage you to learn more this year than you have in the last 12 months. If business knowledge and growth is a priority for you this year, I encourage you to choose a business-related project, but your side project could be anything you want to learn more about.
To help, here are some tips on how to choose a side project:
Treat it like an experiment. The best reason to take on a side project is that you’re curious about a certain topic and you want to learn more about it. There’s no need to freak out over “committing” to something - you’re being an adventurous explorer here, not committing yourself to years of drudgery.
Make it positive. A project is some achievement you want to move towards, not something you want to move away from. Avoid phrasings like “I’m going to stop doing”; use words like “I’m going to accomplish / create / build / improve .”
Make it immediate. A project is something you’re working on now, not something you “plan to work on” at some indeterminate point in the future. Avoid phrasings like “in months” or “someday I’d like to”; use words like “by date” or “I’m devoting hours to this each day”.
Make it concrete. A project has a tangible result in the real world. Avoid ambiguous phrasings like “improve” and “better”; use words like “I’ll have,” “I’ll achieve,” or “I’ll be able to”. Tangibility is the key - it helps you envision what this project will look like when you’ve accomplished your goal.
Make it specific. You should know when you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Avoid phrasings like " will be better“; use words like”I’ll have accomplished ". Include as much detail as possible - it should be absolutely clear when your side project is a success.