Being able to spin several plates at once can be hard to pull off, especially when you have a full-time job. Omid Scheybani works for Google and is a bit of a master at balancing side projects with his full-time Googling. I asked him about why he chose the projects he’s working on, and what his goals are. Read on for the low-down on how to make those nixers work for you.
Omid, while you have a full-time job with Google, you manage to have an impressive array of side projects. Can you tell me about them?
There are three major non-work areas to which I dedicate my spare time these days. First, it’s the “World Culture Storytelling” that I practice through mobile phone photography. I amassed a vast followership on Instagram and my objective is to share cultural insights from the many trips I’m taking around the world. Second, there are my blogs through which I hope to inspire others by sharing thought-provoking perspectives. My blog ThePositude.com roots at the intersection of life, love, and happiness whereas Moonstorming.com is all about challenging the status-quo in the areas of society and technology. Lastly, I’ve been doing an increasing amount of public events – from keynotes at conferences to a photo exhibition that I’ll be hosting in San Francisco early 2015.
Do you have any specific goals with these projects, or are they just for personal fulfillment?
While I truly enjoy my “9 to 5” (which is never from 9 to 5 by the way) it is not enough to make me feel alive. How dull would life be if I could only grow through the work I do? Therefore yes, they give me a lot personal fulfillment and keep my world spinning. More specifically, they help me grow the boundaries of my comfort level. What unfortunate waste would it be if we didn’t maximize the opportunities given to us but let the years go by without taking advantage of all the amazing things we could be doing.
Were these passions always something you had pursued or were you using them to stretch yourself and add new strings to your bow?
I think I’ve always had a reputation for doing things on the side. During my teenage years I produced over 100 short movies including a documentary about Iran which was shown at movie festivals. But if you had asked me exactly one year ago, none of my blogs would have been online, my public speaking experience would have leveled around zero and my photography would have only been seen by my family and friends. To answer the question: I have always pursued passions, however passions are rarely static but evolve over time. And so did mine. Chances are that in one year’s time I will have a completely different set of passions.
How do you balance working full-time with pursuing your passions?
I think it all starts by being aware of how you spend your non-work time. I don’t smoke, I don’t play computer games, I don’t have a TV, and I don’t have Netflix. I see these things as time wasters and I rather spend that time on things that give me fulfillment.. At the same time, I have had a very open conversation with my manager about this topic. At Google we have something called Personal Development Plans (PDP). In my PDP, I outlined some of my personal projects and my manager is committed to helping me accommodate those personal goals alongside my work responsibilities. The best managers I’ve had were the ones who understood the importance of aligning personal and professional growth.
Why is it important to you to have a large portfolio outside of your ‘9 – 5’?
One question I often ask myself is: “If I were fired today, would I apply to the same role tomorrow?” If your answer is yes, then you seem to be doing what you enjoy. But what if your answer is no? What else would you want to do?
Many of us have stumbled into our jobs. You might have chosen a career in banking not because it’s your true passion, but because it felt like the most achievable and plausible thing to do when you graduated. That even goes back to the subject you chose to study in college. I believe that most people walk through life unaware what their true passions are. That’s why it’s important to do these projects outside of work and to “plant such seeds of passion.” Some might grow into beautiful flowers, others might not. And that’s all fine. But by knowing where your true passions lie, you will make it much easier for yourself the next time you ask yourself that question and answer it with a no.
How can working on side projects improve your career?
They can help a great deal. One of my mentors was once on the shortlist for an executive role at a well-known and fast-growing geolocation start-up. The reason why he was chosen over other candidates who were more senior and with more work experience was simply because he was able to demonstrate that geolocation had been an area of interest to him for many years (he had blogged about it even before the start-up was around). Our day to day jobs could by no means encompass all the passions and interests we have.
If someone was thinking about developing a side project, how would you advise that they manage it so that they don’t bite off more than they can chew?
How do you eat an elephant? You cut it into small pieces. Same with these projects. They all need to start small. The Moonstorming project for example, which I’m doing with a friend, is starting out as a blog. But the real objective behind it is to write a book one day. We could sit down and start with the book right away, but that would take too much of our time and we would not be sure it would lead to the best outcome. Starting out as a blog helps us test ideas, get feedback, build followership. Once we feel more secure about our theories, we can sit down and put it all into a book. So whatever you want to do, visualize what the grand final result would look like. But then break that down into manageable small pieces and start with them. This will help you get live feedback and give you the opportunity to change as you go. And if you notice it’s not the right thing, you can always disinvest at little opportunity cost given that you started small.
What’s the best way to get the word out about side projects?
I’m fortunate to have a strong network of friends and supporters who often help. But if you can’t count on that, you need to become creative. For example, if you wrote an article that you want to expose to a big audience, search for Facebook pages that have a big followership and which rely on great content to share. Most importantly though, you need to be patient and consistent. You won’t get massive attention on day one, but you will get it over time and as long as you consistently deliver qualitative content (be it written text or music or whatever your project is about).
Do you have any advice for people about the oft-used phrase ‘personal branding’?
In my opinion, it’s not used enough. We live in a generation where there is always a better person for the job you are applying to. So how do you make sure you get what you want without solely depending on being “at the right place at the right time?” Well, you gotta build that personal brand of yours which might eventually benefit you over others. Being known for certain qualities will help you build trust with others and have others trust you. Your personal brand can be within the company or extend beyond. The farther it reaches, the better. But be careful not to force how others should perceive you. Their perception of you should result naturally from your genuine personality and authentic style. Being fake or forced won’t get you anywhere.
Any last advice to impart about why someone should take on a side project?
If you are 100% happy with your life and your job, then keep going. If not, start challenging yourself by doing new things that will help you learn more about yourself.
Good advice, Omid! I’m a big believer in taking on an extra task to help you find what you truly want to do. Omid sets a great example about what it takes to add strings to your bow. Remember: start small and build outwards and upwards. This time next year, you could land your dream job!