How side projects saved my life

And reconnected me with my first love.

I was once overwhelmed with work that I thought the only right thing to do was take up a bed space at a local hospital. And I did. Well, maybe not me. 

Perhaps the symptoms grasped and forcefully dragged me to Ward 8. Truth is, I couldn’t have walked into that hospital of my own free will. It took nervous breakdown to get me there.

You see, I could avoid all this but I didn’t. I can’t wrap my head around taking a break voluntarily from work. I felt it was a terrible idea to take a chill pill while clients deadlines are hanging and hovering over my head. But now, right here, I’ve taken six pills in thirty minutes to get my health back on track. 

I was a young designer working tirelessly to find a space for myself in a highly saturated and competitive creative market. I rarely get deserved pay for work done. Instead, my health had always paid the price. It was deteriorating. I couldn’t find time to workout. I hardly get enough sleep. I was up almost every night researching clients’ problems, studying but having little or nothing to show for it. Anxiety builds up. I got knocked down. And became a patient.

There I was lying helplessly on a sick bed; looking at the ceiling and counting the boxes as the clock ticks behind me. I was fascinated by the pattern on the ceiling. How each line aligns and adjoins to another to form a cell. Everything was in perspective. So I thought, maybe it was time to take stock of my life and put things in perspective. Perhaps it was time I unchecked some boxes that had me in cell. A time to stop running in circles and refocus.

But then, there was a question boggling my mind; what now do I focus on? I had an answer but I just felt it was unfair. It has never been my thing to shift the focus on myself. I’ve always worked to please others even if the reward was incessant complaints. I take the attention off myself and invest it in clients’ work. It’s always been about someone other than myself.

The morning smell of the bedsheet reminded me of my situation. I tossed and turned in my predicament with no one in sight. Phone switched off. Clients moved on. Others were out there minding their businesses. The world keeps turning. My little world kept crashing. I was alone. Suddenly, It dawned on me that I was on my own because I hadn’t put myself first.

Right there I made a decision to switch; to allocate a bit more time to myself even if I had to spend it sleeping. I thought about self preservation and how it could help me serve myself and others better. For the first time, I spent endlessly time thinking about what was in it for me. At that moment, it was nothing. I had nothing. I wasn’t getting good pay for gigs. Yet I was having a hard time sleeping at night. Something’s got to give. I had to get out of my own way. 

I left the hospital determined to become the best version of myself; to place my mental health ahead of any project, to work only on projects I love, to become highly selective of clients I work with and get rid of toxic relationships. Finally, I decided never to work for validation as I discovered lack of it was the underlying bane of most creative endeavours.

Now, the above decision meant I had to live with working with fewer clients every month. I would be cash strapped within the next few days. I would probably go hungry on some days. And I had to learn to manage the psychological effects of my decision. 

I reminded myself constantly that this wasn’t ego getting in the way, but a fight to get my life back on track; to let go of frivolities and focus on self preservation. I had to look out for me. It’s all I’ve got.

I started.

As predicted, many clients couldn’t work with my new terms and were forced to drop me as one of their vendors. Suddenly, time opened up. I had so much time on my hands but just wasn’t getting clients’ work. I was dead broke. Bills were piling up. Someone said I was being too difficult to work with. Another wanted me to reconsider my stance as I can’t always have things my own way. However, I was bent on self preservation and working only on projects I truly love even if it meant becoming a broke freelancer for a while. Didn’t they say it takes pain to gain?

Well, now I had so much time. The only problem seemed to be how to fill it up with some activities. But then, I didn’t want to be busy but unproductive. At this point, I had decided to focus on a niche area of graphic design that really makes me happy; lettering. My decision to narrow down my skills was to ensure I only get to work on projects I love. I was broke anyway. And my health was in a shambles. I had nothing else to lose. So if I must work at all, it should be solely on something I truly enjoy.

I started creating side projects. I thought, if the clients aren’t stopping by, perhaps it’s wiser I spend my time creating something for me. I looked inside to dig up my childhood interests. I loved teaching; despite being speech impaired as a kid. I could spend a whole day teaching. But I knew if I must teach, I had to learn to document and share my experiences.

I started spending more time writing about my experience on Medium. I had several years of experience in the bag that I could write from. I had a portfolio on Behance to erase doubts about my ability. I only needed to put the words out there. 

My writings soon got me into more classrooms than I ever imagined.
Besides writing and teaching, I also filled my spare time with creating arts for me. Not for anyone else but me. I began to use lettering as a tool of storytelling and self expression. So everyday, I was at my desk making sketches which were basically an expression of my imagination. I expected nothing from these arts. I just felt it was my own way of giving a voice to the voiceless. I made sure to share my piece on Instagram as soon as they were created.

Interestingly, my phone began to ring again. People who loved my lettering were contacting me for jobs. I was developing custom typography for ads. There were offers to create unique wordmark identities and titles. My side projects were fast becoming magic.

Recently, a collection of some of the most expressive arts I created years ago was exhibited for public viewing for the very first time. It pays off; creating those side projects wasn’t a waste of time after all.

Did I mention that I compiled my experiences on lettering into a digital book? Yes, I did. I wrote Lettering Pro to help upcoming typographers kick-start their journey into the amazing world of lettering. The e-book is available and also a product of my side project. 

These days, clients’ works are nothing but bliss. Complaints are buried because I only take up projects that excite me. My side projects are taking the front seats. This was my goal from the outset; that the projects I enjoy doing eventually overthrows the ones I complain about. I’m still not making as much money as I would love to from creating designs. However, I can’t underestimate how much control I have over my works and the peace I feel inside for the little impact I make. You know, the joy to do what you love, your own way.

In conclusion, we can choose to work however we want if we can take the pain that comes with making a decision for ourselves. A lot of creatives are mentally ill due to pressure. Some are depressed because what they once loved has suddenly become a nightmare. Many work to please while a few work at peace. Self preservation is not selfish. In fact, it’s one of the most selfless things you can do for others. If you are in a good place mentally, then you can serve yourself and others with all you’ve got. 

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