the importance of the side hustle

the importance of a side hustle

Let me talk to you about a time most of you can’t remember, let alone fathom. (But first, I’ll break into my gravely voice while I yell about kids getting off my lawn.) I started out my career in the age of resumes on bond paper and file cabinets. Back in the day you mailed your resume to the company you wanted to court, and you prayed that yours would be the one that would rise above the stack. This was an age when cold calls were verboten, and recommendations were reduced to someone making phone calls made on your behalf because who knew of LinkedIn? Who actually used email?

Throughout college I interned at some of the most prestigious investment banks simply for the fact that those jobs paid handsomely. Smith Barney money afforded me top shelf instead of well drinks. Merrill Lynch money afforded me rollneck sweaters, barn coats and anoraks from J. Crew, and I would watch as everyone hawked my every delivery with the sort of envy I’d begun to covet. When I graduated, I took a job in an investment bank because this is what one did — one went along with the pre-defined plan. One didn’t question or argue the trajectory.

Until I did. Until I realized I didn’t want to be Gordon Gekko; I wasn’t built for an industry that created nothing except for the illusion of progress. I realized I hated banking during a relentless heat wave when I decided to walk into work wearing a long floral skirt, sans hose. First, let me explain the business of hose. Although we entertained dress-down Fridays with a mixture of confusion and mild amusement, a woman simply dressed from one of the several somber suits arranged in her closet. Pants were passable. Skirts were lined and grazed our knees. Heels were a smart variation on cocoa, black or blue. But floral skirts were sacrilege. Unlined rayon was the financial antichrist. You might as well have adjusted Powerpoint slides in the nude while preaching idealism like sermon.

Are you surprised that I wanted to run?

Recruiters shook their heads and sighed when I suggested a change of industry. Who would employ me? One had to have experience in a profession, and I competed with a line of college interns who could afford the luxury of the unpaid internship. They worked for glossies, designers and the arts. I worked in banking so I would only be interviewed for jobs in banking.

I should tell you in advance that I don’t accept refusals. I shirk the words you can’t; I don’t take kindly to the word no. At the time I’d been routinely hitting up sample sales and traveling to outlets and selling some items on eBay, until it occurred to me that there was no market for designer resale. Online commerce barely existed and there were parts of the country, the world, where people didn’t have access to finery at a discount. So while employed in an investment bank I decided to create experience where none existed. I filed papers for a LLC, managed my own accounting, built a website, purchased a camera and tools for photoshoots, and scouted sample sales for inventory. Essentially, I was the Outnet of 1999 at a small scale. While it’s true I made a good bit of money and had a lot of fun buying Dolce & Gabbana shoes with my father during trips out to Woodbury Commons, I’d started to learn the language of digital–I understood what it meant to run a business. This caught the attention of my next employer, who hired me as a project manager for a burgeoning luxury goods dot.com.

That’s when I first learned about the importance of a side hustle. That’s when I learned how to say, fuck you and your no, out loud.

If I hadn’t built a business from scratch I wouldn’t have realized that we are far greater than our bulleted parts. Because there are thousands of people pushing paper with similar credentials. All those resumes read like minor variations on the same theme. While it’s true that people may attempt to dress up a piece of paper in designed finery, the words (and experience) remain unchanged. When you realize that one’s work as a strategist mirrors someone else’s carefully composed resume, you begin to understand that people hire people, not paper.

Every employer has hired me as a result of my side projects. They’ve gotten me through doors and industries that would have remained closed. They’ve given me supplemental income. Side projects have saved me from the doldrums of the office and have empowered me to pursue creative endeavors and learn skills that I wouldn’t have gained in a traditional office environment. Side projects have expanded my network and put me in front of people who have become lifelong friends. I’ve launched literary magazines and websites, hosted events and started organizations. I’ve practiced photography to the point of not being half-bad. I’ve a diversified skillset in a way that I understand technical details just as much as I get creative. Recently, I’ve been guiding a sizeable website relaunch and I understood the principles of UX just as deftly as I did the process for establishing a creative vision. A lot of my current consulting work is a hybrid of creative brand work with organizational design–all because I have a voracious appetite for knowledge. All because I raised my hand at work and volunteered to learn something new, to assist someone in another department in my free time. All because I was brought up in the age of extra curriculars. All because I never be defined as one thing. All because I never want to stop learning and building.

More importantly, side hustles have given me hope when none existed. They’ve shone lights amidst the dark, and have made me realize that there is so much possibility–something nearly impossible for someone of my tenure and experience who may not necessarily believe that the whole of the world lay at their feet. Side projects have made it such that I walk into a room and I have so much to talk about!

How I’ve Created Side Hustles:
*Start small: Early side hustles were inspired by my friend Jeff’s book, 52 Projects. Sometimes we get subsumed by BIG and we need to start small. Explore your creative and practical self through small, fun assignments–whether it be baking a batch of cookies or learning how to code websites and write software programs. Start from a place of curiosity. You’ll have more fun with it and flex varying brain muscles if you know your income isn’t dependent upon your expertise. Start from a place of pursuing something that excites you. You’ll start to notice how this passion and new skill will inform or augment what you’re doing in your professional life
*Take classes: From local continuing ed classes to online ventures, I’m always learning new skills or strengthening my existing ones. I love General Assembly, SkillShare, Nicole’s Classes, and Lynda. This year I plan to take classes to get fluent in Spanish and I want to take a Classics course.
*Raise your hand: At various jobs, I’ve gone out of my way to connect with people in different departments and have volunteered to help on projects where I have less experience. Consider it an informal apprenticeship, but I found it so practical to learn about SEM by sitting with an expert and help him churn out reports. I learned so much about photography by helping a friend out on a project. I also routinely hang out with people who have varying skill sets and make a point to know about what they do.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo

side hustle

freelance life + careers

25 comments on “the importance of the side hustle

  1. Great post! I’m with you on getting fluent in Spanish. I wish I would have stuck with it through college, but it’s never to late to jump back in.

  2. Everything about this is GREAT. I feel you on banking. I just recently quit after 6 years with your former employer and it is in a word…nice.

  3. I love your blog, btw. This entry is me, right now. I’m trying to figure out what I’d like to do next or maybe the 2nd half of my life. Lately, I’ve just been volunteering and doing small little projects here & there hoping that will lead to what I want to do next.

  4. Thank you for this post! It is empowering to know there are people other there who see through the shackles the monotony and fearlessly decide to live a better life. To do it a better way. 🙂

  5. I really enjoyed this Felicia. One of my best laid reasons to get my latest position was that I’ve made myself diverse. Learning from other disciplines have proven invaluable for me.
    In a sort of related matter, yesterday I had a woman I admire tell me that she thinks I have potential, that she wants me to succeed and she sees how far I’ve come and she thinks I have huge potential. I was floored and so flattered. And then? Then she followed with “but you’re very pretty so you should probably tone it down so people don’t think you’ve gotten to where you are because you’re pretty.”
    Seriously. That’s what happened.
    And I thanked her and I appreciate her concern but I will not conform myself to someone else’s standards to improve my career. Once I get “there” I won’t be me. Your writing about pantsuits and lined skirts made me think. Actually, you were one of the first people I thought of when she was telling me this and I wondered what you’d say.
    She grew her career in a time where it was to her advantage to dress as one of the men. To call attention to the fact she was a woman was sacrilege, just as you described above. I think that, no, she’s wrong, it’s 2015, but there are times I know she’s right and that makes me want to go into a blinding rage.
    My apologies for the diatribe, but would love to hear your thoughts if you’d be so inclined!

    1. Hey Emily,

      Thanks for the note! Unfortunately, you’re going to find people saying this (and other things) throughout your career. I think you handled it gracefully. I would’ve said something along the same lines. If I choose to change my appearance, it would be for me, not as a means to conform to someone else’s perception or standard.

      Hope this helps!
      Warmly, f.

  6. I loved this post, and I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m in law school, preparing to enter the world of “Big Law” but I’m already on the lookout for side opportunities to branch out and explore. I don’t want to be in a corporate box, and I know that I can somehow figure out a way to use my writing skills and creative thinking as a springboard. This was inspiring, because I sometimes feel like law or banking or consulting, especially in a big city, makes lots of people think that’s all they can do because “they’ve come this far” and anything else would be a “step down”. But it isn’t – it is a step away onto a path that works for YOU.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this post! The recommendation of those online classes alone is priceless!! Congrats for saying no, sticking to your guns and getting shit done!

  8. Hi Felicia,

    I really appreciate this post. Lately I have been trying to do things in my free time that are fun and make me happy, since I’ve started to realize that my full time job is not where I want to be for the rest of my life. I think it’s tough for me to find things to do that are purely a reflection of my interests. It would be even more difficult to turn that into something that could possibly make money.

    I hope that makes sense, but either way, thanks for this post!

    1. Hi Cass– Thanks for your comment! I don’t think the pure purpose of a side hustle is to make money. I published a literary journal for 5 years and I was in the red. The side hustle allows for you to explore something you truly love, something that is a departure from the kinds of things you do that make money. A side hustle is meant to show a prospective employer that you’ve other interests, accomplishments, etc. Hope this clarifies! Warmly, f.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Felicia.

        I understand that a side hustle shouldn’t be for the purpose of making money. I think it’s amazing that you published a literary journal for five years. How did you get into that?

        Recently I started volunteering teaching english as a second language. So far it has been a good learning experience, and maybe a step in the right direction.

        1. It’s actually a bit of a long story, but it started in 2002 as a need to publish work that was routinely getting rejected in traditional literary magazines. The journal started out online and then morphed into print + online versions.

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