How To Own Your Side Gig: The psychology of the side hustle and creating meaningful work

Photo credit: Mateus Campos Felipe

It’s my least favorite part of parties. The dreaded question. “What do you do for a living?” Most of us don’t have a simple answer. We are accountants, writers, parents, jewelry makers, consultants, nurses, makeup artists, and more.

Marci Alboher calls this “The Slash Effect.” Long gone are the days where people stayed in one profession their entire lives — or even stayed in one profession at a time. More people than ever are pursuing meaningful work by finding the intersection of their talents and passions through slash work.

The side gig has become a mainstream phenomenon.

Now, more than ever, people are not allowing themselves to be defined by one discipline. But there’s a problem. People don’t feel like they can claim their slash careers.

Ever tell someone, "Well I make money as a lawyer, but I also run a side project linking people in the community with resources”? Or, "I like to paint but I don’t think I can call myself a painter.”

We are afraid to claim all sides of our profession. We believe there is some threshold of “worthiness” or success that we need to reach before we can include our side gig as part of our professional identity. Almost as if the profession written on our tax form is the only career we can claim.

According to a survey by Bankrate, 45% of Americans have a side hustle. And 27% of those people view their hustle as more meaningful than their primary career.

So why are we still downplaying our side gig, our baby, if it’s the most meaningful part of our work?

Why we downplay the side gig

There’s a dark side to the side gig. Here is the psychology behind why we feel discomfort when disclosing a profession that we believe isn’t up to snuff.

We associate success with money and status

In a survey by the World Economic Forum, Americans define success in a variety of ways, including security, lifestyle, travel, and relationships. But a majority of Americans associate success — or “making it” — with money and status. Respondents also wished to work less and have more time off — both accomplished more easily with better financial security. And it’s not just about income — people associated success with things like 401K account savings or the value of their car and house.

We all want to reap the fruits of our labor. It’s easy to measure success in terms of rewards granted.

But when we associate success with money or status, we set our side hustle up for meeting a certain “threshold” related to money or status. Unless it lives up to this expectation, we disqualify it.

We think in black-and-white terms

Our brains like to categorize things into discrete categories. This is called all-or-nothing thinking. Because we think in black and white terms, our side gig either meets some threshold that we’ve designated as successful, or it doesn’t. Either the side gig “counts” or it doesn’t.

When we think in black and white terms, it doesn’t matter how much we love or enjoy our side hustle. Meaningful work has nothing to do with it. If the side gig doesn’t meet the criteria we’ve designated, it doesn’t make the cut.

We are ruled by self-doubt

Many of us are afraid to own our slash work. We try to build a safety net in case we fail or don’t see it through. If we don’t own it, we aren’t admitting how much we fully care about it. It’s much easier to downplay our side hustle and how meaningful it is to us.

But this isn’t authentic. This lack of vulnerability is not consistent with building meaningful, fulfilling work. We don’t have to wait until something meets a certain threshold to deem it worthy of our time. You’ve already designated it worthy of your time by starting it.

How to own your slash work and cultivate meaning

When we get caught in the trap of thinking about our side hustle in black-and-white terms instead of what’s meaningful to us, we aren’t brave. And that’s what meaningful work is all about — being brave enough to branch out from "the perfect path" and do something that fulfills us.

According to bestselling author Brené Brown, the solution is to “DIG” deep by getting deliberate, getting inspired, and getting going.

Get deliberate

In order to cultivate meaningful work, we first have to know what is meaningful to us.

Take a minute to write down what defines meaningful work for you. Think globally about what excites you and what gives you purpose. What do those activities have in common?

When I write down what defines meaningful work for me, I write brave, entrepreneurial, and authentic. Whenever a new project crosses my desk I put it through these three filters.

  1. Is it brave — will it push me out of my comfort zone and allow me to grow?

  2. Is it entrepreneurial — will it get me closer to my dream of having my own private counseling clinic?

  3. And is it authentic — am I staying true to myself by taking on this project?

I get deliberate by saying yes to projects that hit two out of three of these benchmarks. And I say no to those that don’t. By doing this, I can distinguish what is meaningful to me and accurately filter what is less valuable to me. That makes it easier to own my work because I’m taking ownership of exactly when, how, and where I spend my time.

Try it yourself. Write three words that embody what makes work meaningful for you. What is it you enjoy? What are your passions? What types of things do you value, and what do you want to spend your time on?

Get inspired

Side hustlers know that community is everything. Humans are hard-wired for connection, and connecting with others can give us a sense of purpose that can be hard to find on our own.

Connect with others who are associated with your meaningful work. Hear the stories of people who are pursuing meaningful work in ways that are similar to you. Talk to other people who are also engaging in side hustles. Build your community both for informational support, emotional support, and inspirational support.

Brené Brown suggests starting with “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success” by Marci Alboher.

Here are some other books that I’ve found inspiring for my own slash work.

Let their stories inspire you.

Get going

Turn the inspiration into action by getting going.

What type of work or activities fit into your meaningful work filters? Take a look at a typical day of work and differentiate between activities that fulfill you and activities that don’t. Make a list.

Next, problem-solve. Figure out a way to increase the time that you spend with meaningful activities.

Not everyone has control over their jobs, nor day-to-day tasks. But we can vastly increase what nourishes us, or focus on learning new skills that springboard us towards the things that nourish us.

As Lindsey Kunz, author of “Why Women Innovate,” says:

“All of us get to choose whether or not we allow our personal convictions to shape our career paths. …there is more than one way to integrate passion into your career. That doesn't mean every job will be your dream job. What it means is that you can turn any job into an opportunity to gain skills, increase awareness, and discover what matters most you.”

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

The takeaway

So many Americans are involved in gig work, but don’t own their side gig. They let self-doubt and black-and-white thinking get in the way. But for most of us, our side hustle is a key component of meaningful work.

By digging deep, we can identify what is meaningful to us and use that as a filter to spend more time on what nourishes us. Your hustle is “enough” simply because it inspires you. It doesn’t need to meet some threshold of “success” for us to own our side hustle as part of who we are.

Especially because people’s passions and skills cannot be summarized by one descriptor. We are so much more than that.

If we think in terms of what is meaningful to us, it becomes so much easier to own our careers — all parts of it.

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