The Trick to Getting Good at Anything

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“Santa’s gonna stop giving you gifts, and so am I.” That’s something my mom would tell me all the time as a kid.

I wouldn’t listen.

At around age 5 or 6 one of my favorite things to do was take apart toys that I was tired of playing with.

You know how it is, you get a shiny new toy and then a week later it’s tossed in the corner gathering dust. But then curiosity sets in, and I would challenge myself to take them apart, look inside them to see how it was made, and then try to re-assemble them.

I rarely succeeded, the complicated toys would never work properly again, and the simple ones just couldn’t be glued back together.

Eventually I just used the parts to create new toys. The head of a toy robot would get glued on the body of Tarzan, and the broken stock of a toy rifle would become a hovercraft for GI Joes.

The electric toys were really fun because you could take out the little working motors, glue wings and propellers onto them, and they would turn into miniature planes.

I think this little form of playing really helped me once it came time for school math and science. I developed a curiosity for learning how things work on the inside. I’m sure you probably had similar experiences. This is why the mind of a kid can learn things so quickly.

Well, it turns out that this is a not-so-secret formula for getting good at almost anything. If done properly. But sadly, as adults with lots to do and little time to get it done, we usually rush and skip the one important step that makes or breaks our ability to learn.

We usually study something, then we try to create our own. We go from dissection to creation.

But the important step that goes between dissection and creation is re-creation, or in other words, imitation.

Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, throughout his career got a lot of criticism for being a Michael Jordan wannabe. The Kobe haters will tell you “he wants to be MJ so bad. Look, he copied his fadeaway jumper, his first-step to the basket, and even the signature Jordan tongue-out dunk was done by Kobe” I don’t think Kobe did this on purpose, I’m willing to bet he got stuck that way due to the hours and hours he spent trying to de-construct how Jordan played, and then re-creating it himself.” Kobe didn’t simply study, he imitated move by move to absorb its power, then worked from there. Maybe he was a wannabe. But he wannabe’d himself into the Hall of Fame. Not bad I say, not bad.

I gotta admit, I’m a shameless imitator also. It’s part of my process

I can’t remember where I read it, but there was an interview where a writer said that he got so tired of struggling with his writing, that he took one of his favorite books and re-typed it word by word. He sat there typing away in hopes that his fingertips would pick up some of the author’s magic. No magic was transferred, but in the process he started to see the elements that made the writing work. Stuff he didn’t see by merely reading the book. As they say: learning how to ride a bike can’t be taught at a seminar.

After reading that story of the author, I went and did the same thing. I picked up one of my favorite books “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and I re-typed it cover to cover.

At the end of each paragraph I would pause for a few moments, and ask myself, “What makes this good?” “How would I have said this in my own words?” I tried to anticipate his next sentence by coming up with the next phrase I think should go there. And quickly realized how horrible of a writer I am. I was now able to see the huge gap there both in clarity, and in wittiness. It was excruciating, but also encouraging. Even in learning how bad you are, it means you’re at least learning. You now know something you didn’t know yesterday.

That’s something you can build from. But just getting there takes a lot of work. It starts with imitation.
Before I started my podcast I did the same thing. I chose an episode of Radiolab, one of the best podcasts out there, then downloaded the audio file, and then I went to the transcript that they provide on their website. In my audio program I put the Radiolab file on one track, and then I used a second track to record myself reading the transcript. I would figure out how much time I had to read a portion of text and I’d keep trying until my voice would match up to what they were saying. I would play it back and then study what was different between the two.

In doing this, I learned to notice what they do to keep an audience engaged. I started seeing what the difficult things were, how the audio complements the writing, and how they use music to pace the whole thing properly.

Once again, there was a huge gap there between what they did and what I am capable of, but at least now I know what to work on.

I think these are the two most important reasons to start imitating your favorite creator’s work:

Number 1- Before you create, you have one idea of what you will struggle with. But then when you start, you realize you have a whole new set of problems.

Let’s say you want to start a clothing line. You think the hard part of launching a clothing line is coming up with a quirky design, or coming up with a cool brand name. But in reality, let’s say that you decide to just re-create a famous jacket for yourself and your five closest friends. You’ll soon realize that the difficult part is sourcing the materials, choosing the right manufacturing process, and getting the distribution right. But if you don’t try it through imitation first, you’re being led astray by fears and worries that are likely to be the easiest parts of the process.

The things you thought would be hard, are actually not that difficult. And the real roadblocks make themselves visible. Imitation lets you start quickly without wasting time planning something original.

Number 2- Going beyond just seeing the problems, when you imitate something good, ALL the elements of a project reveal themselves to you. You now see that a play has smaller parts than just the three acts, a joke goes beyond the setup and punchline, and a song isn’t just three verses with a repeating chorus. You see the parts between the parts. And how they work together.

So here’s how you start on your own journey of imitation:

Pick something you like and is also popular in the field you want to master. I recommend something that is a minimum of three years old. Sometimes new things become popular just for being new, and their crappiness takes a year or two to really show itself. You want to imitate something that has proven to be valuable.

Next, write down what you like about it, and what you think would be the biggest obstacle you would face if you were the one first creating this type of work. Put yourself in the setting that the first guy or gal lived in.

Then, just start re-creating it. Work in hour-long chunks of time per day, but pick an interval of smaller periods to stop and think about what you just did. Compare your expectations to what the original creator actually did. What surprised you about the actual direction versus what you thought was coming?

The final step is to do it all over again–with something else. Pick something new and imitate. A few repetitions in and you’ll have picked up the skill of noticing. Now it’s part of you, and you’ll be able to apply it instantly out in the real world.

It may not be as fun as taking apart an old toy and putting it back together, but this skill is gonna feel like a shiny new toy from Santa. One you’re gonna want to keep handy.

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What all creators should learn from Monet’s process

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Can a painting really be worth $80 Million dollars?

It boggles my mind, but in 2008, a painting of Water Lillies by Claude Monet was sold at auction for $80 Million Dollars. Claude Monet had been dead for over 70 years at that point, but even while he was alive–his paintings were in high demand and selling for large amounts.

The man’s fame was only superseded by his skill.

We’ve all grown up hearing the name Monet, mostly in books and movies for me, but I didn’t really become interested in his work until I saw another of his water lilly paintings on display at The Met. Now, I’m no art connoisseur, but seeing his painting in real life made an impression on me, even though I can’t explain why.

So I did a little bit of research on the artist. I wanted to know what all the hype was about, and what made his art so valuable.

What I found was a useful lesson in how to become a true professional at your art. I think anyone who builds things or creates art should incorporate some of it into their own process. I’d like to share these insights with you.

Now, for those of you not familiar with Monet, his best known works are of outdoorsy things. He got paid so well for his art that he was able to buy a huge estate in the North of France. He had a staff of gardeners that would make his gardens nice and pretty. He would import flower seeds from all over the world so that his garden looked like no other garden in the area. And no, this isn’t my first point, the key to great art isn’t having a better manor than the Joneses.

My first point is that Monet became a master through the concept of hyperfocus. Those water lillies in the painting that sold for $80 Million, he painted those water lillies over 90 times. For a span of 20 years, from 1899 to 1919, he made 90 separate paintings of the water lillies. You would think the guy would get bored of painting the same thing over and over, or that the public would get tired of seeing them, but no, this all made him more popular. He painted lots of other things over this time, but it would never be a one-off.

His focus on one subject over dozens of paintings allowed him to start seeing details no one else could see. It’s almost like the X-ray powers that Superman has in the comics. His paintings rose to a whole nother level because of the hyper-focus.

Now I ask you, what small part of your craft are you half-assing? Are you taking the time to repeat and deconstruct your process like a boxer jabbing hundreds of times a day just to find the perfect striking angle?

Another important factor in Monet’s popularity was how he embraced his style. Yes, he painted works about nature, and he did everything over and over. But he did this for a stylistic purpose even more than for mere practice. He would paint the same subject from different angles each time, and at different stages over the day. It would become its own study in the passing of time.

The critics LOVED him for this.

And he became the most popular of the painters labeled Impressionists. He was proud to be a member of this group. Proof that style and substance don’t need to cancel each other out.

As it was noted in his Wikipedia entry: “He began to think in terms of colours and shapes rather than scenes and objects. He used bright colours in dabs and dashes and squiggles of paint. Having rejected the academic teachings of Gleyre’s studio, he freed himself from theory, saying “I like to paint as a bird sings.””

But let’s not forget, although this approach was considered ‘going against the grain’ at this time, It doesn’t mean he couldn’t work within the rules. This man studied in Paris, he learned the “rules” of painting, and then he proceeded to smash those rules.

That’s the third thing I wanted to point out about his process. Being a trendsetter doesn’t excuse you from studying the rules. Creating something new means breaking the rules through boldness, not through ignorance. The message gets lost in translation if your art is simply covering up laziness, as opposed to showing off your need to rebel. Laziness isn’t sexy, rebelliousness is.

If it’s not yet clear to you, becoming great at whatever you do, is not an easy thing. For Monet, this required him to hyperfocus on a single subject over years and years.

Secondly, it meant he had to essentially pigeonhole himself within a label, then learning to love that label, and to leverage that label.

Then the third thing that helped Monet become the best was that he first mastered the rules, THEN he mastered the ways in which to break them. It doesn’t have the same effect in reverse.

It’s a huge sacrifice, putting all this time into a craft. And speaking of sacrifices, Monet himself realized the huge price to be paid for genius. His wife was suffering from Cancer at the young age of 32, and when the cancer took her life, Monet stood at her deathbed, but instead of crying or grieving like a normal person would, all he could was get to work then and there. He made a painting of his dead wife as she lay there.

Monet confessed to his friend Georges Clemenceau that his need to analyse colours was both the joy and torment of his life.

He explained:
“I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours according to an automatic reflex!”

Now you understand the makings of a master.

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Is Your Idea Any Good? Why The Three Day Rule Works

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Matthew Weiner is a great case study on commitment to an idea.

He wrote the pilot episode of Mad Men in 1999, and started pitching it to studios right away. Everyone passed on it, but he kept pitching it and trying to find a buyer. It would be seven years before it got picked up, to instant acclaim. Matt knew that it had been a great idea all along.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, are you and I. Us “Generation Y’ers” and Millenials are characterized by an abundance of ideas, but poor follow up. We get a rush of excitement and quickly lose that energy because our idea is “not good enough.”

I gotta admit that I’ve spent a good amount of time, energy, money, and pride going after an idea for a couple days in a flourish of enthusiasm, just to wind up quitting a couple days later when the rush is gone. Like my investment club idea, which I eagerly told my friends about, and then gave up on it the next day when I realized how much work it would take.

Even with my writing and speeches, I’ll start on tons of ideas, but I finish very few.

So I had to come up with some type of filter to keep me more focused and accountable. What I came up with is one simple test: the three day rule.

When I get an idea, I write it down with as many details and action points as possible. Then, no matter how energized by it I am, if it’s not something that can get finished in that moment, I put it away for a couple days. I stop myself from mentioning it to others. I come back to it on the third day, and if the idea still creates some excitement in me, if it doesn’t sound like complete foolishness, I commit and start work on it.

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that 80% of the ideas I write down actually fail this Three Day Test. Either they’re too bland or they’re too fluffy with no actual substance.

I think you should try this too, that’s if you suffer from the idea virus like I do. Start a master list with all your ideas, whether for a business, for a creative project, or for any other endeavor that requires time. Don’t take immediate action when that first light bulb goes off, instead, just write it down, and check back on it three days later. THEN you can make a decision on it. If it’s still a YES, go full-force.

I’ve already saved myself a lot of time and money now that I’m not carried away by every silly little thought that comes around when I’m riding high on coffee in the morning.

And Here’s another benefit: by jotting down your ideas and then leaving them there, you start to create a backlog of half-baked ideas that could one day turn out to be worthwhile.

Like when I write: I no longer have to worry about not having inspiration, I just open up my list of ideas and pick the idea that jumps out to me the most, the one that is most baked, ready for the magic touch from Chef Alex.

The other benefit of the Three Day Rule is, the good ideas have a way of sticking to the back of your brain, like a piece of gum in your sister’s hair. Oh, it’s gonna take some serious effort to get it out of there. But you want the good ideas to stick around. In those two days in between, if your idea has some potential, it will have taken better shape through unconscious thought. You’d be surprised at what a relaxed brain will indirectly come up with.

Then once you’ve waited, if you’re still fired up, you can start work on this improved idea.

The three day Rule works for me, and the reason it works is because time is an amplifier: it destroys what is weak, and highlights what is strong. That’s what we mean when we say something stands the test of time. Same principle here. Sure, the idea sounds good right now, but don’t act yet. Just list it and resist it.

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The Emotional Stages of a Project: Pain, Flow, and Bliss

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Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: I know it happens to me.

So you’ve set a goal for yourself to go to the gym today. You’re resolved to not skip out. About half an hour before your workout you start dreading the whole thing. You somehow muster the energy to go.

And once you’re working out, the first 15 minutes are pure pain. Most of this pain is in the form of thinking: you don’t know why you force yourself to work out, you are dreading the cardio you’re gonna do, or dreading how heavy you know the weights will be.

But then something weird happens: after those 15minutes you stop struggling with those inner thoughts, your breath has caught up to this task in front of you, and although you’re still sweating and feeling the burn, your mind and body are both in agreement that this exercise is a necessary evil, hey, might as well try to work together to get through it in one piece.

You’ll have this feeling for a good 30 minutes or so, depending on your level of proficiency with exercising. Then after these 30minutes, when you’re almost at the end of your workout, you start to experience a form of joy. Yes, joy that you know this is gonna end soon, but also joy that you were able to rise to the occasion. Pride in the fact that you are still going at it, and are not as worthless as you were thinking in the beginning.

Go ahead, you’re done for the day, it’s totally normal to smirk at yourself in the mirror on your way to the showers.

This whole process I have just described is a great example of the internal feelings attached to ANY activity or project. And it can be our worst enemy or biggest ally.

As you can tell by the title: I refer to the first emotional stage of a project as Pain, the second is Flow, and the third is Bliss.

Since some of my freelance gigs slowed down, I’ve been driving Uber full time to keep the bills paid , and I noticed that Pain Flow Bliss applies here too. When I start my day it’s just a big ball of Pain. Now don’t get me wrong, the job is pretty sweet: I love meeting new people and learning about the millions of stories New York City has to offer. But Pain Flow and Bliss show up because there’s a goal to the activity each day: to make money. For the first two hours of my driving shift all I feel is anxiety and pain because I keep thinking: “I need to hit X amount of dollars today, but the goal is so far away…” Every little bit of traffic irritates me during these first two hours. It’s a form of Pain.

Then, the next four hours of my shift I’m focused, I’m no longer going through mental anguish, I’ve acquired tunnel vision and my mind is focused on getting to the next traffic light before seeing red. My breathing is strong and steady. This is essentially what the scientist, he has a challenging name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is what he, that guy, termed as Flow.

Flow happens when we’re fully immersed in a challenging activity. It requires our full attention, but we have a bit of confidence in how to get this activity finished.

Then, towards the end of my shift, it all becomes bliss. I’m usually close to my Dollar goal, and I am ecstatic that I didn’t let the traffic derail me. I feel like I could keep driving for hours and hours. It actually takes effort to STOP accepting new trips. I feel like I could keep working forever! This is the epitome of Bliss.

I argue that Pain Flow Bliss is present if you’re doing something trivial, like mowing your lawn, but also if you’re doing something colossal, like writing a book. And the process has a very predictable time breakdown, let me show you:


Remember I said the first two hours of driving Uber were the painful ones? And the middle four were Flow, then the last two or so were usually blissful. That’s the common thread I’ve found in all the activities I do: the first 25% of the time is spent in Pain, the middle 50% in Flow, and the last 25% in Bliss.

Now, to clarify, I’m using examples of an activity that lasts a couple hours. But the fascinating thing about this concept is that it applies to a project that takes a week, or many weeks, or even years. Think about it like a piece of brocolli, every little stalk is comprised of smaller little stalks that are Juuuust like it. If you look under a microscope, you see this division happens infinitely. With projects, every stage of Pain Flow Bliss is also made up of smaller emotional stages that also feel like mini episodes of pain flow and bliss.

I think this is very useful to know before starting any activity or project, because if you’re aware, then you can learn to let your emotions do their thing, while continuing to push through. We often give up during the Pain phase, and forget that the other 75% of our time will be super-enjoyable.

Even more important, I think Pain Flow Bliss tells the truth about the value of rewards. If we consider bliss being the reward of our efforts, but yet it’s really only a quarter of our time, then it reframes work as its OWN reward. The process is mostly about Flow, NOT about the reward of Bliss. Our life isn’t about the end of the process, it’s about the challenging–yet meaty– middle. The plaque on the wall with your name on it isn’t the purpose of it all, the real purpose is the time spent on earning it. If we wait to live until we’re in the reward zone, we’ll miss out on 75% of our life.

My favorite youtube vlogger, Casey Neistat, learned an important lesson after his early success with his HBO show. He got this big check for the show when HBO bought this series that he made with a home video camera, and then he spent like 3 years where he didn’t release much content. He would start work on a new video, and then be paralyzed by perfectionism. None of these new projects ever got finished, and he would put it away, then start a new one, only to give up due to the pain he was feeling from the pressure of living up to his previous success. What evolved from this was three long years of pain after pain after pain. The moments of Flow were rare, not to mention that he rarely got to experience the Bliss of completion.

After these three years he one day vowed to always finish what he started. Whether the result was shitty or not, going forward every video he started shooting would get posted up on Youtube for the world to see. This type of thinking allowed him to create the Nike video “Make It Count” that has over 20 million views. Now he has 4million subscribers and was named GQs New Media Man of The Year. He started releasing daily vlogs on his Youtube channel, He experiences Bliss every day. Because he finishes.

If we give up during the pain, then we’ll never get to feel the joys of Tunnel Vision, of flow, and later, bliss. We stay in the panic zone, and life becomes one big panic attack.

Pain on top of pain on top of pain sets up a horrible feedback loop. We never get to refill our energy reserves if we don’t get to feel the joy of finishing something. Going forward, I hope to persevere through the pain of the first 25%, I want to live life in the other 75%.

Solo Episode: Three Reasons Why You Need a Side Project

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One of the coolest places to grab food or drinks in New York City is called the Coffee Shop, it’s right by Union Square. When you go there, you’ll be greeted by a tall blonde, she looks as if she’s straight out of a runway, or right out of the screen from the latest horror flick. And there’s a higher-than-average chance that she’ll make it as an actress, this place, The Coffee Shop, is known for hiring talented young people. Maxwell, the Grammy-winning R&B singer used to work there as a busboy before he made it big. I even have a good friend of from college, he worked there too, and now you can find him in shows like Girls, Law and Order, and acclaimed independent movies. My goal here isn’t to give you the lowdown on spots where gorgeous people serve you your french toast, my point is that the thing that fills your wallet and the thing that fills your soul are rarely the same thing.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be. In the future. Right now though, don’t beat yourself up over having a day job. Hey, the bills gotta get paid.

In this episode my sole purpose is to convince you that you NEED to have a side project or hobby. Even if you’re not looking to change careers or branch out on your own, having a side-project will rock your world. Here are THREE reasons why you need to start working on a side-project.

Reason #1: Side projects release the stress of everyday life

Life is tough. This isn’t news to anyone. Work gets more demanding each day. Friends drift farther away. And the Mets keep letting us down every year. Life just keeps pounding away. This every-day grind isn’t easy to put up with.

So what do we do? On our free time, we medicate. We use drinks, or drugs, or sex, or excessive TV watching to just get away from our problems. These are the forms of release we resort to. But these methods of escape provide diminishing returns. If today one drink was enough to get you by, tomorrow you’ll need two. The same goes for all the quick fixes I mentioned earlier… The returns become less and less, and the toll on your well-being becomes greater and greater. You can’t keep this up.

BUT, what if you picked up a hobby or side-project to work on every day after you get home from your job? I argue that this is the best way to release all that tension that life creates inside us. You can’t control whether your boss is having a good day or a bad day, but when you sit down to sketch for an hour at night, that piece of white paper is a universe you can control. You can determine how much of that blank slate is covered, you can determine what it communicates. And this is a great feeling. 15minutes into sketching, or into writing, or working on your car, you forget why you were even upset in the first place.

Joseph Campbell, a very smart scholar who studied culture and myths, developed a wonderful theory of how to live a better life. One of his key suggestions was “Follow Your Bliss” Bliss is simply a moment when you’re doing something that brings you joy. He said: If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.

Modern life is full of obligations and distractions that must be dealt with before we can get time to ourselves. Take care of those, but then take care of yourself. You can do this in just an hour a day, by working on a side project that brings you bliss.

Reason #2: Side projects make you better at your day job

It’s a running joke with my friends: I tell them that if you want to ruin any activity for me, just pull me into a conversation in the middle of the activity. Forget walking and chewing gum, I can’t even walk and talk at the same time. It’s like whatever capacity for verbal communication God grants to humans at birth, I think he forgot to give to me.

By nature, I’m one of those people where verbal communication requires most of my mental energy. I was great at math growing up, but I struggled with language. I was never much of a talker, I was friendly, but shy, if that makes any sense. Writing a paragraph was the biggest punishment you could give me. In my SATs I scored in the 93rd percentile for Math, that’s very good. And then in the verbal part I scored like 54th percentile, as average as it comes, and this took LOTS of effort.

But I dreamed of being a good communicator, just because this seemed like such a DRASTIC CHANGE. So later as an adult, I took up a hobby of writing every day after work. At first it was just 15minutes, and over time I found myself being able to sit for an hour to write. Then I joined Toastmasters, a club to hellp you get better at speaking and communication.

Now, I’m not saying I’m great at any of this, but most of the progress I’ve made in my career has come because my managers say I’m a good communicator, I know how to get others on the same page. This is a dream come true for me.

And this is not magic, this is simply a by-product of having a side-hobby. When you work on something and there’s no pressure to hit quotas, your mind shifts into a special gear. I’ll be dedicating a whole separate episode to what this special gear really is, but for now, let’s just say that this special gear we shift into, accelerates your learning. The learning that you do while you’re working on your side-project STICKS with you during regular life. This will make you a much better employee, a much better team member at work, and a better leader. Pretty soon you might find yourself having superpowers that were previously just a dream.

Reason #3: Side Projects Give You Hope

One of my favorite books ever is The Alchemist. The author of this book, Paulo Coelho, has a quote from a different book that I also love. He wrote “The poet would die of hunger if there were no shepherds. The shepherd would die of sadness if he could not sing the words of the poet.” In this quote I just read, to me the shepherd represents how we go about fulfilling our basic human needs: water, food, shelter, etc… The poet represents the needs that fall higher on the pyramid. The spiritual and emotional needs that keep us mentally sane. For me, HOPE is one of these important emotional MUST HAVES. When you go to work on Monday even though you’d rather stay in bed, you do this because you HOPE and expect, that you’ll be paid on Friday. You also hope that you’ll get promoted and get a bigger paycheck sometime soon.

Side projects bring you that hope in your personal life. Your hobbies fill you up with excitement. When you finish writing your short story, you have hope that someone will read it and like it. Even if it’s just one person, the hope is there. If you don’t have a hobby or side project, the best you can look forward to is for a new season of Narcos to be released on Netflix. Then what?! Give yourself the gift of hope. You need it just like you need water and food.

The Good News

The good news is, all it takes is just an hour a day. I understand that creating an extra hour of available time is difficult, but it’s much tougher to enjoy a life with no project you can call your own, and no moments of real bliss.

If you’ve stuck around with us for this long, then I think you’re becoming convinced, deep down you KNOW that you need to start working on your side project. This side project or hobby will help you release the stress of everyday life. As it happened to me, this side project will help you build skills that you didn’t even know you had in you. And this side project will give you hope.

A side project can co-exist with a day job. One feeds your stomach, the other feeds your soul. The magic of it all is, just like Maxwell and that blonde serving you your lunch, a side-project, if you’re determined enough, can one day become a career.