Want the cheat code for professional growth? Start your own project
Good news: the work // experience chicken // egg problem has been solved.
“I don’t care.”
I published 58 episodes of the EdTech Startup Show podcast between Jan 2019 and July 2021.
A few months in, PR people began reaching out to pitch clients as guests. The PR folks often asked some version of “how many listeners do you have?” And my gut response was I don't care.
Of course I’d give a ballpark number. But I don’t care was the truth. The project was a success because I was doing it, not because of any specific metric. That’s not an everybody-gets-a-trophy cop out, either. Here’s why.
During those two years, I learned about audio recording, project management, content repurposing, and more. Even better, people were observing me build those skills with each new episode that came out.
I formed relationships with dozens of CEOs and founders in the industry I was trying to break into. I never would have had in-depth conversations with them otherwise.
These conversations taught me more about business, technology and education than I ever could have imagined.
Most of that experienced happened while I was teaching full time. And there’s no way I could’ve gained that experience from my teaching job, or any other job I was qualified to do at the time.
But by creating my own project, I was able to access these skills, experiences, and people that otherwise would’ve been unavailable.
The 5-step process to rapidly close resumé gaps
“The job requires 2 years experience. How do I get hired if it requires experience? How do I get experience if I can’t get hired?”
We’ve all heard someone say this, or perhaps been the one saying it. Until recently, it was a valid point. You could get stuck, wanting to change careers or get your first job, but feeling that expectations were unreasonable, and job descriptions were excessive.
The Internet changes this in a big and permanent way. How?
By leveraging free info, low cost tools, and online networks, you can launch your own projects to close the gap between where you are and where you want to go.
The process looks like this:
Name the goal. It could be to get a promotion, start a new career, or completely change industries.
Find the gaps on your resumé or portfolio. This is the space between your current skills and experience, and where you want to go.
Design permission-less projects. These are projects you can do, that don’t require others’ to pick you. Of course, many projects require the cooperation of others, but you should be able to “launch” on your own. More on this below.
Document, share, and network. Write about your process, and give updates about your progress. Take notice of who responds and keep in touch with them.
Rinse and repeat. You may have to repeat steps 1-4 as necessary.
This sounds nice, but what are the practical benefits of following this process?
The Golden Triangle of Career Opportunity
Creating your own projects helps you build three things required to carve out your own career path:
Skills - valuable actions you can offer to others
Experience - Proof of your valuable skills
Relationships - A network of people who need your skills, or are connected to others who need your skills
Doing your own projects is the fastest way to get all three. But maybe you don’t want to start a podcast like I did. Thinking more broadly, what kind of projects help to develop the 3 elements of The Golden Triangle?
3 kinds of projects that accelerate learning
As I mentioned in “A 7-year story,” my first attempt to join an EdTech startup failed because I lacked the pieces of the Golden Triangle. But in between 2015 and 2021, I tapped into the power of starting my own projects to close the gap.
There are three ways I would break down these kinds of projects: freelancing, sales, and media.
Freelancing is anytime you trade time for money so you can provide a person or business with a service based on a skill you have. This includes everything from landscaping to cooking to graphic design. If you help someone do a task, and they are paying you for it, but you’re not an employee, you are freelancing.
Sales, in this case, means setting up a store to sell products online or in person. Digital is now the easiest way to get started, though I can think of some exceptions like a home-based baking business. If you have an Etsy shop, a Teachers Pay Teachers store, or you sell on Amazon, this all counts as sales.
Media, i.e. publishing or creating content. This has never been easier, and the tools to do this are easy to use and often free. You may never have a million fans, or even 100, but if your message is clear and interesting, you will attract others who share your interests. A blog, social media account, YouTube channel, podcast, ebook, newsletter all count here. As an added bonus, you’ll clarify your ideas by producing media.
At this point, you may be nodding along, but still have a funny feeling about trying this.
Best & worst case scenarios, and getting started
Everyone has their own time commitments based on personal life factors. I am not writing this post to convince anyone they have time they don’t have. However, this info may help those who do have time and are not sure how to use it.
Aside from time, the major hurdle for applying this philosophy is mindset.
We all fear rejection or failure to some extent. It is a base paranoia of banishment from the tribe. Do your job and don’t attract attention. That’s safe. Launch something and ask people to pay attention to (or buy!) your stuff? That’s risky. There’s no denying this. But we can work around it.
To reduce the fear, it can be helpful to outline the best and worst case scenarios. Tim Ferriss refers to this process as “fear setting” as a play on goal setting.
Here’s the fear-setting process as applied to starting your own project.
Worst case scenario, you try something new and get 0 externally-validating results. You may even get trolls online who say rude things to you. You can block them. You may waste money on software or resources. Though to say you wasted the money wouldn’t be fair because you’ve still likely learned a lot. You’ve also used up your time, which you can’t get back. But how does wasted time compare to the regret of wondering what if? Even if the project totally fails, you will have made an attempt at doing something new, which is farther than many people get.
And the best case scenario? The project turns into a massive success and becomes your life’s work, showering you with riches and fulfillment you never imagined. Not a bad risk/reward profile if you ask me.
Now you’re convinced, so it’s time to get started.
I will write in more detail about starting a few of the projects listed above, but for now the advice is to start with the smallest action you can do on a regular basis that gets you real progress. For example, DON’T start creating business cards. DO start reaching out to potential clients. Figure out what that action is and get started. If doing it makes you nervous at first, that’s a good sign that it’s the right thing.
Bonus: Use “seasons” (like TV) to make your project feel more manageable
My last piece of advice is take a tip from your favorite shows and use “seasons.” If you are starting a newsletter, set a goal to write and publish for 8 weeks. If you are starting a freelance business, make a goal of sending your pitch to 100 people. If you are selling a product, launch one item and aim to get one sale.
Start small and evaluate your results. You’ll learn more than you think. And you’ll probably have some fun.
Any questions? Ask below.