I slaughtered a project in the name of improving my own business culture recently.
That’s right folks, I committed projecticide recently. I chopped off the length of rope that tied me to Hacking Happiness. I sucked in what content I could from the blog. I sat others in fallow ground for other projects. Redirection from the URL occurred and now all roads point to Unashamedly Creative. And while I loved that project, that idea, that thing I nurtured with business brain Brook McCarthy, it was time for it to die.
So just how did I decide to kill something that gave me quite a lot of joy and a place to play outside my freelance business?
Here’s how you can decide whether your side project is worthwhile and something you still love. And when it’s OK to get seriously Dexter on its arse
When project love is an addiction
I have a terrible relationship with work. I start to wonder if the grass is greener pretty much 6 to 12 months after I start. You would think is pretty odd because it usually takes me a fully 3 months to soak things in and get my bearings.
It is what it is. No amount of sassy business culture or nice workmates ever changes it.
Freelancing satiates that somewhat by delivering variety and challenge through different clients and varying projects.
The issue however is that I have been freelancing as Unashamedly Creative for almost 8 years now and I am tired. Not “I’m out!” kind of tired. Just lacking that verve and enthusiasm you get with a newly minted freelancer.
I remember a beautiful piece that Shy Magsalin, theatremaker and director, wrote for another project (Discordia) I killed off. It was entitled “How I have grown (tired)”.
It was a simple piece of self reflection on the journey from fresh faced innocence to a stonier, grounded place many creative practitioners make. The naivete is replaced with experience. The problems remain. And somewhere, the creative person changes shape.
It’s a feeling I see reflected in my musician partner, Richard, at the moment. After 20 years of pushing and pushing for bands to work in the Sydney music scene, he too has become tired now we are in Wollongong. What would have saved him years back from bassists leaving town or band politics or venue closures was resilience. That and hope and hunger for the next project.
At a certain point though, regrouping and pulling on the boots, treading the boards and trawling the band call out pages becomes more work and less interesting. It becomes harder to do as you face increasing disappointment while the enthusiasm wanes.
Shy has channelled her theatre practise into touring with Suzuki and teaching at NIDA and other places. She has her own production company so her destiny is (a little) more her own.
Rich has taken his tiredness into solo pursuits of martial arts, where the mistakes and politics and lack of enthusiasm are on his head alone. We’ve installed a band room at our new house though and I see some of that eagerness has returned. As a talented person, I do hope he discovers his new version of what music is to him- and soon. I’d much rather photograph the band then wade through stinky gis!
For my part, I started writing projects in Discordia and Hacking Happiness and threw myself into the Freelance Jungle. I wanted my freelance business to be something else, to take me to the next level.
But I was too enamoured with starting ideas and got side tracked. It lead me to a place that wasn’t exactly a good one.
The unhealthy project relationship
Hacking Happiness was something I really loved. But it was also something I had entered into a cycle of ridiculousness with. It was also something I never really gave a chance when I think about it. I was over-invested in the idea of solving too many problems too quickly. I was colouring outside my lines and being all things to no one in particular.
What I wanted to do was:
- Cure workplaces of bullying and bad business culture
- Taking on myth makers in wide and varied forms
- Instil the idea that work doesn’t have to be the only things in our lives
- Explore how hard it is in self employment
- Take on tricky subjects such as mental health, suicide and death
- Run workshops and events to hack through the normal way to do things
- Remind people stress has a productivity cost
All of these have merit but none of it got very far. I sat with this project for a long time in a dusty journal and then I dug it up and dragged someone else in.
That person stayed with it until it didn’t work. Then I continued and continued to resent it. I got side-tracked, as I do. I got sour because I felt like it was trapping me.
I tried to downsize the responsibility of the project by:
- Removing people
- Removing offerings
- Slimming it to only blogging
- Cutting down on social media
- Stopping social media
- Making deals with myself on how much blogging I wouldn’t do
And I refreshed the brand and re-jigged the copy, hoping for the inspiration to come. I re-wrote the TO DO Lists and never saw things getting crossed off. I started studying things so I felt more credible, which in itself wasn’t a bad thing. But it was also another excuse to procrastinate.
I wanted to stay with this project so bad I almost killed the enthusiasm and love I have for everything I do.
In the meantime, I grew the Freelance Jungle group, built it a website based on need and marshalled a team of volunteers to manage the group, the content and events. This felt right where Hacking Happiness felt wrong.
Then I felt guilty. I felt like I was cheating on my most principled project.
So I stopped blogging for my business and the Freelance Jungle website. I failed to move forward with social media and I began to feel paralysed by everything. This sense of anxiousness stalked an already chaotic life that was uncomfortable about not having a stable home as we looked for our forever home for months. I was already restless about business and had been that way for 5 years.
Here was a project designed to remind others stress has a productivity cost that was causing me the most stress. It was about improving other people’s business culture while seriously tainting my own.
Thank goodness my relationship was OK because the wheels may have well and truly fallen off. While I am terribly good at keeping up appearances, my anxiety was at one of its highest levels and I was suffering through digestive and physical pain on an almost daily basis.
When I got the renewal notice for the domain name, I felt sick and guilty but most of all, fed up.
And so I put on Guns and Roses “I used to love her, but I had to kill her” and plotted my next move. At the time, I thought it was because I simply didn’t have the mental energy to think about the project.
Now I realise it was a huge source of my problems and that the indecision and not knowing the value in the project was infecting my business.
How to get away with murder
It was time to practise some learned ambivalence and really look at what was happening with Hacking Happiness.
Instead of writing a TO DO list of what I wanted to do, I went backwards. I looked at what I had achieved.
I wrote a list based on:
- What events had occurred
- What content was featured on the site
- Where the opportunities had come from
- What aspect of the project had attracted those opportunities
- The common features of the positive elements
Then I matched this against:
- Where my credentials and authority lay
- What products I was already offering in the same space
- Linking into everything else I had learned in the last 3 years of having the project
- What this realistically totalled
Following this, I then looked at:
- What was giving me the most pain and frustration
- What I was offering
- Why would anyone be interested
- What was the better way to go- improve the business culture, refine the offering or kill it completely
The interesting thing to discover was to find that Hacking Happiness had created the bottleneck it had because it was actually crossing over heavily into Freelance Jungle and into Unashamedly Creative.
What had happened was that ideas I think needed a special, unique space were actually the potential second tier and third tiers to already existing and thriving ideas. Things like self care for the self employed, not getting caught in business bravery myths and having a healthy relationship with business had no problem finding their way into Unashamedly Creative (mainly) and Freelance Jungle.
I also wanted to get rid of bullying in workplaces and getting people to not accept misery as their working lot in life but had failed or stagnated. I’d subconsciously not pushed forward with these ideas because I felt like I wasn’t qualified. I tried to make myself qualified by pairing with Brook in the first instance and entering into partnership discussions with a psychologist.
It wasn’t the right move.
Killing Hacking Happiness has given me a unique insight into how I am qualified to speak on these subjects instead of placing that responsibility on others.
I should have been aiming to be a business culture consultant for businesses that want freelancers. I should have been explaining the value in freelancers and helping make that a viable part of a changing workforce.
And I should have been focused on what I have been doing all along.
Coaching, advocacy and education for freelance individuals is something I am already doing because I have the lived experience and knowledge. The aim should be that I teach and upskill and prime freelancers to create the business culture they need. By giving Australian freelancers courage in their abilities and help to strengthen their business, I’m empowering them to be the change. The freelancers, not me, can influence that culture for the better and on their own terms in a last way.
That, I can do standing on my head with corn shoved in my ear while whistling Dixie.
I just didn’t realise that this is where I was going all along.
Holding the autopsy and the right funeral
I’m not saying that you’ll feel super free if you kill off every project you have that’s frustrating you. But I will say that you have to know when to keep something alive and when to give it the axe.
You have to divorce yourself from ego. It has to be a process of being somewhat dispassionate to extricate you from an unhealthy project relationship.
You have to face your own shitty freelance business culture and ask yourself why you’re making dumb excuses not to run your own business the way you want.
For me, looking at what I had achieved as opposed to the starry-eyed hopes for the future gave me the breathing space I needed. It gave me the opportunity to see the value in the project as well as determine why other places were being influenced to the negative.
It also meant that I learned a few things about myself in the process while also reaffirming some stuff I had already forgotten.
The biggest lesson of that is that as a former product manager, I need the structure in place to be able to build the product. I tried not having that planning in place and it left me floundering and unable to move forward.
Getting caught up in the ideas is useless if you don’t have a roadmap.
I also needed to remember to solve a problem while remaining challenged and authentic. That’s instead of trying to stick glitter on things I was already offering or playing to my weaknesses.
And I forgot that it is my business and stop telling myself a direction doesn’t fit just because I am chicken-shit about some potential confusion during transition.
Hacking Happiness gave me the opportunity to work with someone of excellent mind and fantastic energy in Brook McCarthy. It also helped me to grow a strong connection with Beyond Blue and Dr Gen Baijan. It also taught me that being “unashamedly creative” is already about caring for people in business. And that the Freelance Jungle is stress relief in action while giving people practical assistance on a daily basis.
Oh, and 2018 will see another website pop up. But not one that is middle ground. I’m not making that mistake again.
Gratitude after the growing pains
I’m grateful for the people I speak to every day in the Freelance Jungle community. I have been humbled and over-joyed for the opportunities to be on radio and in the press talking about stress reduction. Being able to learn with Beyond Blue, Lifeline South Coast and people such as Groundswell Project and Helen Callahan have made me see clearer.
So I consider the process one of learning and of happiness. But of also knowing when it’s time to let something go. Killing in the name of love will allow me to bring better things for the future. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
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