Passion Project 101: 3 Lessons on Pursuing Your Creative Dreams

Pursuing a passion project can offer many unexpected benefits. For one freelance writer, tackling a daily creative challenge led to a book deal, valuable new skills and a happier, more fulfilling career.

Remember cootie catchers? They're those little paper things (also known as paper fortune-tellers) that you made out of notebook paper as a kid. You fold them up, and then magically, they spit out mind-blowing fortunes: You're going to have three sets of twins when you grow up and live in a mansion!

Back in 2011, my cootie catcher fortune would have read: "You're a disgruntled freelance writer about to save yourself with a crazy-sounding side project." I'd spent a decade building up a wonderful client roster, but somehow, I'd lost my freelance mojo.

One big issue? I'd completely stopped working on my own passion projects and creative endeavors. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Everything on my desk was connected to a client deadline or billable hour, and my creative tank was in that scary red empty zone.

Around the same time my friend, designer and artist Noah Scalin, published the book 365: A Daily Creativity Journal: Make Something Every Day and Change Your Life! Umm, yes, where do I sign up?

I decided to spend a year doing something completely playful. I'd make a cootie catcher every weekday. Each one would address a different topic or pressing life question. What would Mr. T do? Where is my soul mate? Will I get promoted? I'd make them available as free online downloads for anyone to print out and fold up.

I learned three key lessons that have helped my freelance career:

Lesson #1: A passion project on the side pushes you to learn new skills. I bought the domain name, begged a graphic design friend to make me a cootie catcher template and hastily put up a really ugly blog with a WordPress template.

The next three months involved a steep learning curve that deepened my skill set in everything from SEO and analytics to Photoshop, WordPress and writing fortunes. The three months after that involved rather serendipitously landing several projects that required all this newfound knowledge.

Lesson #2: Doing something every day is a great way to sidestep procrastination. Noah puts it much more elegantly in his book, but somehow, the pressure of a daily deadline makes you let go of both perfection and procrastination. Some days I only had 20 minutes to knock something out, so I didn't have time to second-guess or overthink.

But the months pass quickly, and it's amazing to see how fast a body of work builds up when you spend a little time on it each day. It becomes a practice and a habit that helps fuel everything else you're doing. I became much more engaged with all my work.

Lesson #3: People will pay you to do the work you put out into the world. It might not happen immediately. It might not be a million dollars. But the best way to land the work you really want is to just start doing it yourself. A few months into this project a book editor friend spotted it on Facebook and thought it would make a great book.

Another six months passed before I sat down to write a formal proposal, and just this week ­– more than two years after I made my first daily project cootie catcher ­– my book hits stores. It's called Fold Me Up! 100 Paper Fortune-Tellers for Life's Pressing Questions.

Here's a pressing question for you: When are you going to kick off that awesome passion project trapped in your head? Share your idea or a link to your current side project in the comments.