Finding Inspiration and Developing a Side Project
By Juan Carlos
A lot of side projects I’ve worked on have become my main projects, become side projects again, and eventually stand on their own. Going from end to end so many times has helped me streamline their development into tangible products.
At any given time, I have somewhere between 2 to 4 projects going on concurrently. I don’t know why that is my magic number of things to be doing at once, but it is. 3 projects tend to be active while the other 3 to 5 simmer on the back burner.
Many of my projects on the back burner will likely end up on the cutting room floor.
While I am a filmmaker by trade, I try not to let that dictate the way an idea comes to fruition. Whether it’s a film, app, organization, game, song, or something else, I try to make sure the idea has room enough to breathe. It’s more important to gauge my excitement for a project than to kill a concept because it doesn’t fit into my wheelhouse. If my will is behind it, and it’s something I care about, I’ll find a way to do it.
I once was inspired by a man chatting about sustainability in NYC. He started talking about white roofs and how they could make a major difference in the city’s landscape—they could even curb climate change. Lightbulb: why couldn’t I be the person to do that? It led me to coat a rooftop white with a group of activists, and that eventually led to founding a nonprofit (aptly named White Roof Project). The organization has now coated hundreds of rooftops, been integrated in 5 countries, and helped 20+ cities in the U.S. activate projects of their own. Had I not given myself the mental space to develop an idea on something that inspired me (albeit outside my wheelhouse), it would not exist today.
As long as I’ve kept the doors open, an idea will surface to the top with enough momentum to become something tangible.
While everyone wants to be stricken with an idea, sometimes it’s not possible and it’s just about banging things out until something hits. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to find ideas. In fact, some of my best ones were forced and some of my worst ones were lightning bolts (and vice versa). It’s kind of like finding a significant other via a dating app or it happening organically in real life. Sure, one generally has a more storybook kind of beginning, but at the end of the day it doesn’t invalidate love. Same goes with an idea: the lightbulb type of ideas are sexier to have, but it doesn’t mean they’re all that great.
Hindsight is the greatest tool a creator has in their tool chest.
Regardless, psychologically we do a lot of mental trash talking when ideating, at least I do. And its taken me time and discipline to keep the wolves at bay. Accepting ideas as they are, when they come, however raw or underdeveloped they are, is step one. It does me no good to second guess or ask for criticism initially. I also don’t erase, I just keep going. Instead of editing the core concept as I go along, I tend to duplicate the text and then change course if I think a new path is presenting itself. That way I keep the original and then have the fork as well. Later on, when I’m fresh, I can look back and see what was the better choice. At the time it’s really a crapshoot, it’s better just to keep all the ideas percolating, as it’s much easier to make a decision hours or days later when I’m over that initial burst of inspiration.
I get ideas by putting myself in the way of things that give me ideas.
Watching television or movies (unless with purpose) tends not to give me many ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I do watch a lot of movies and TV, but it usually isn’t the greatest faucet for my imagination.
Things that work for me: exercising outside is one of the best. I’m usually just going along, picking up bits of scenery or assessing interactions I’ve been having with people. Sometimes it’s a short dialogue that sticks out in my mind, or how someone reacted, or a conversation that led to a bigger thought. Lots of times I find myself on the tail end of some stream of consciousness, and an idea comes from what’s already floating around in my head.
Another great place to get struck by something is a museum, art museums are the best, although natural history or science can also do it for me. Basically any place where my mind can get lost and be contemplative, rather than being in a place where I’m watching and perceiving something passively. Whether I’m staring at a painting, sculpture, or looking through a microscope; it’s the freedom to discover correlations and values in the moment that gives me new ideas.
Something I don’t do enough but find to be a source of ideas is the opera, symphony or jazz. The show itself is usually easy enough to follow without my full attention, and I end up in a trancelike state where I’m feeling the music more than anything else. The music conjures new thoughts and more often than I like to admit I start asking big questions about the universe as a whole.
I think there are a lot of reasons these activities work for me, but I recognize they are not some catchall. Everyone’s mind is different and unlocking these ideas is really a matter of putting yourself in places where you feel inspired.
I make an effort to write down every single idea that enters my head, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.
Whether I have pen and paper handy or just my phone, I jot down my thoughts before they have time to change. It’s important to write things down as is first. I like to clearly define where I started and then iterate as the thought evolves naturally. Eventually I migrate all my writing and drawings to Google Docs, but there are plenty of apps to choose from. I keep everything synced with my laptop, and my laptop backed up on another hard drive—so I always have a few failsafes. Somehow that comforts me and my fear that the only thing I have of value are these ideas. Even when I’m fully immersed in a project, if the muse hits me with a new idea, I allow myself some time to get it on paper.
I Use a Journaling App
The reason I mention journaling is that it’s an easy way to get myself to write stream of consciousness about my day. That small amount of time to reflect also gives me a chance to get the creative juices flowing, even if it’s only at a prose level, it keeps me frosty. Besides… over the years I’ve collected a grave yard of journals that all go about 10 or 15 pages in before they’re jettisoned. What’s worked best for me the last 4 years is OhLife.com. I like this app because everyday it sends me an email asking what happened in my day, and I feel compelled to write back—as if they’re some pen pal I like to answer frequently. The app takes care of adding that entry to my journal, and once there’s a backlog of entries it started spitting back what I wrote from years back into that email that comes in each day. More than once, some journal entry that I wrote long ago sparks a new idea on the day I read it again.
Reading fiction at night and non-fiction during the day.
Both are really helpful for me, and push my brain in different directions. I like fiction in the evening because it allows me to cool down and step toward the dream state more easily. If I read non-fiction at night, I usually start thinking about work and get re-energized (hard enough to get away from it, best not to ask for it). I max out at reading just two books at a time. Whenever I’ve added another to the pile I stop reading long form content, and end up defaulting to reading news articles for months, until I remember… only read two books at once.
If things are more challenging to get to, there’s enough time to guilt myself into staying focused.
App addiction is difficult to overcome.
My brain thinks it can multitask, but it really can’t. At one point, years ago, I timed myself for a few months (with RescueTime) to see how effective I was in a given day with everything turned on. I like to believe I’m pretty productive… It turned out that in a twelve hour day, alone at home, I was averaging somewhere between 4 and 5 hours completely immersed. Otherwise I was online, sometimes researching, but mostly reading news, posting things, and going on Facebook or Twitter. It was really discouraging to see the stats. So I picked up a few of the anti-social apps (now using SelfControl)to keep myself honest for hours at a time on my laptop. Well, as you might suspect, I became reliant on my phone and iPad for updates almost immediately. I had to kill notifications on all my mobile devices, make sure my home screen was devoid of social apps, and for good measure I uninstalled Facebook on my phone. Those small steps gave me back at least 45 minutes of daily distraction.
On keeping up with social media
Lots of people seem to think this is a misuse of time when it comes to productivity and ideation. I am a part of communities like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram so that when I do have a project to talk about, there will be people on the ground floor. Realistically, it depends on what you’re trying to do and who you want to do it for. Is the project for mass consumption, a group of folks, are you a thought leader? What’s the end look like and work your way back to what you need: an audience, a small group, the masses, etc. Also, having a social media maven who champions your creation can be way more beneficial than sinking time into creating a strong following. This all gets back to distribution and marketing, something that takes an enormous amount of skill, connections, time and luck (more on this in later installments though). At the end of the day, I’m okay at social media, and I usually defer to smarter folks on a project by project basis.
On a personal level, I spend too much time looking at the numbers game. It’s way more important to be active than passive. As much as I tell myself that, I still find it hard to post regularly about things I read, see, and have opinions about. Finding and continuing to raise your voice in this sphere can be really daunting, especially for certain kinds of creative types. At some point we just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s easy to give up, feel like there aren’t enough people who care, and that all the work hasn’t amounted to much. Through it all, when I’m at my best, I just slog through it. While it’s tough sometimes, the very best things have happened by reaching out to people and connecting with them. Hell, I wouldn’t have been able to mount a successful Kickstarter campaign and finish my second feature film without the help of some really great friends and backers.
It’s not easy keeping a schedule and it’s easy enough to be disheartened when I don’t get much done in a given week or month.
On being creative and holding down a day job
I save this for last because it’s something I’m always struggling with, and I know a lot of people who find different ways to be effective while holding down a job.
Some people are big believers in having a junk job while they work on their next great project that will bring the fame and fortune. As for me, I really like to have a job I care about. I think it helps give the day and hours I spend time at the office meaning. If I enjoy what I’m doing I feel better and more motivated when I get out of the job. My quality of life overall is better too because I don’t come home complaining about having to do something I don’t find value in. While I understand the concept of doing something mindless and saving that energy for later, I don’t buy into it. If my mind is inactive I think it would atrophy. Problem solving and having high level conversations, regardless of the industry, keeps me on point. There there’s those folks who have a menial job, and say it makes them hungry for more.
Apart from getting a job that suits my needs I’ve found a few guidelines that help me stay productive and open to ideas. It starts with planning, is held together by discipline and is given breath through perseverance.
I keep a pen and paper to-do list (recently adopted the BulletJournal system) and have for many years. Every time I’ve strayed to digital to-do lists I’ve lost track of my personal projects. They end up getting sectioned off into a projects folder and the days roll by without me worrying about them. Continually re-writing what needs to be done really helps me remember what I want to accomplish, and keeps me on the hook for things that might fall by the wayside otherwise. I also break things down into easier to-dos. For instance, if I’m working on a film idea, I don’t just bullet “write script”. I set down the list (on a separate sheet) of 40 to 50 things I will need to get a rough draft out the door such as to-dos like character descriptions, beat sheet, catalyst, etc. The more finite the goal, the more likely I’ll be able to complete it. I’ll keep the sheet handy, but add specific to-dos on my daily to-dos.
There’s so much to say here. A lot of it is common sense or in other great books. Every morning wake up and meditate for at least 10 minutes. Some people do their ‘morning pages’ around this time and write to get the creative juices going, it doesn’t work for me. But it’s probably worth reading “The Artist’s Way” to get some good tips on process and inspiration. Keep a schedule that’s bundled with other things you will inevitably do, like writing and then brushing your teeth, that way it’s easier to integrate and keep to it. Sometimes a schedule can become so erratic it’s more important to chart how to get everything done on a daily basis. When I know a hectic week is coming I tend to look at things at least a day or week ahead of time. That way I don’t lose control of the train in the moment. Most importantly, I try to set specific dates for when and why I want to get something done. When I can, I try to find real-world reasons that push meeting certain deadlines (i.e. festivals, labs, conferences, hackathons). If the stakes aren’t high enough, it probably won’t get done in good time.
I heard a great story once of someone who hated the NRA, giving his buddy a check for $1500 to send as a donation to the organization if he didn’t meet a deadline. That’s high stakes! And he got the job done because of it.
On Perseverance and Failing to Meet Expectations
When I’ve inevitably fallen of the horse, I don’t get too down about the whole thing. The best way I’ve learned to do better once I’ve made a mistake, had a lapse of judgement, or lacked self-discipline, is by staking out how I arrived there. I look for precursors to the issue to elucidate the problem before I am suddenly there again without being aware of it. If there are any folks involved other than myself I take the time to forgive everyone (internally not externally). After that, I try to create mental signposts so that when I’m at a decision point later on (the place where I dropped the ball) I can realign with my overarching goal before going down the same path. The most important books for surviving the mental battles with myself were the Tao Te Ching, Crucial Conversations, and The Diamond Cutter.
Time is what we’re up against.
If we had infinite time in the day, week, month, and year, we’d be able to entertain all our ideas. Ideas are free and fun to develop. That said, I don’t have all the time in the world to make all of those a reality. Between work, wife, other projects, outings, meals, and all the fun things that get in the way, it’s lucky I get anything done. So, the next most important piece is making the right choice when green-lighting a project. Depending on the size and scope of it I may be invested anywhere between six months to three years in something. Since I was young my strategy has evolved and many values have changed. I’m not sure whether that’s a product of wisdom or not. What’s a good use of time at 21 isn’t at 31. Regardless, I think there are guidelines for choosing a project that are universal. That post is coming up next…
Fueled by a passion for storytelling and excitement for life design, I find joy in reframing narratives to illuminate paths toward fulfillment. My experience spans high-growth startups, filmmaking, and social impact, culminating in my authorship of “Mind Guide: 49 Mental Models for Effective Decision Making.” Through mentoring and coaching, I guide teams and individuals to discover purpose and cultivate a meaningful life.
I started in film, directing award-winning features such as ‘Know How’ and ‘Second Skin.’ These cinematic endeavors earned me recognition and allowed me to serve as a spokesperson for Adobe. I founded the White Roof Project, a grassroots climate activism campaign that mitigated the urban heat island effect and spurred community-led social change.
I carried my storytelling skills and passion for societal transformation as I transitioned into the startup ecosystem. Initially, I contributed to social impact apps, converting complex issues into accessible solutions. This early experience laid a foundation for my later work, where I led the development of groundbreaking products within high-growth startups. My work has underscored the potential of technology to innovate industries and amplify the quality of human life.