When I was in college doing my International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, I used to complain a lot about how so diversified the topics of study are, so much so that it’s difficult to really be good at any one of them.

More is not always better

I would start my day with a Mathematics class, for example, then rush away to a Chemistry class, only to be followed by an English literature class. Then a French language class. Then a Physics class. Then a Theory of Knowledge class. Then a Business Management class. Not necessarily in that order, of course, but you get the drift.

Seven separate subjects belonging to 3 or 4 separate realms of knowledge. Just when my gooey brain matter starts to form around the concepts of chemical chelating agent, or around Einstein’s and Maxwell’s and Max Planck’s work on the photoelectric effect, suddenly it was (very violently) tugged away into the realm of philosophy, and grasping a handle on a new language, or sifting through the intricacies of 19th century English literature, desperately trying to make sense of all the extravagant allegories and similes and what not.

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy learning those stuffs – I did. It’s just that it’s difficult to really be good at something when you don’t specialise. And now that I’m nearing the end of my undergraduate studies, it becomes plain to me that just as too much variety can be bad, too little variety can be equally bad as well.

Less is not always better too

When you’re doing an undergraduate degree in engineering, your subjects of study are pretty much limited to just the technical knowledge that relates to engineering. And it’s not difficult to be good at it when all your time is spent on that one particular realm of knowledge. But it also means that you’ll get bored pretty quickly, and then it dawns on you that you have so much free time available.

And so you spent that time pointlessly commenting and cross-commenting on an equally-pointless status update that someone posted on Facebook, or watching that same movie you’ve watched a dozen times, or watching that TV series that bores you just because you’ve watched all the other TV shows that interest you. I know this cause I’ve been there and done that.

Hence the need of finding a pet project, something that you enjoy doing and that doesn’t directly relate to your studies. Give your mind a new dimension to explore and expand itself, and you’ll quickly find that there’s much to be learnt and experienced outside your particular profession of choice.

That sneaky little pet

I started learning about web development since high school, but it was an on-again off-again thing. I never went to any web development classes, nor did I furiously spent 40 hours or even 20 hours a week trying to learn the skills. It was purely something I do out of interest, particularly at the prospect of being able to “control” and “tell” the computer what to do.

But because I didn’t have to learn web development – nothing depends on it – there was no pressure. I learn at my own leisurely pace, making mistakes along the way. Sometimes I spend days on end just experimenting and learning new skills, guiltily stealing time away from my formal studies or other things that I actually have to do. Sometimes I chuck it away and left it there for months, never visiting it. But I thoroughly enjoy the experience, and everytime I dabble in it, I learn something new.

But not until I decided to take that endeavour to an entirely new level that it truly becomes a pet project for me.

Taking it further

I started developing the Graphene theme since I was in college doing the IBDP, but in August 2010, I decided to release it to the public and let anyone download and use it for free. Boy, that opens up a huge gate of opportunities, and suddenly a huge chunk of time seems to disappear into thin air.

Since then, the Graphene theme has been in continuous development. Anybody who has been using it since its early days can easily tell you how far it has evolved. It wasn’t easy – there were a lot of challenges along the way – but it’s exactly because it wasn’t easy that makes it so worthwhile doing.

Apart from being a place for my mind to take refuge in after absorbing a whole lot of engineering-related formal technical knowledge, this pet project has been a platform that allows me to learn everything else that they didn’t teach me in engineering school. And that includes things like managing and interacting with other people from all around the world, figuring out what exactly they want, and sometimes, biting that tough medicine to shunt away people that are actually damaging to the long-term health of the project.

And it doesn’t hurt that it pockets me some cash as well, and I make some truly remarkable friends along the way.

Getting your pet project

The thought of starting a project that has real-world significance both on you and other people can be a bit daunting. Most people won’t know where to start. May I suggest here that you simply look back at your daily life and see what have you been doing all along that doesn’t directly relate to your primary profession or studies. It may be cooking or baking every so often, or writing essays or posts on a blog, whatever it is that you do often and you enjoy doing. Then take that one step further – tweaking and publishing the recipes for example, or actually submitting that writing of yours to a publisher, etc.

The important thing to remember is that you have to enjoy what you’re doing. There’s no way your pet project can last for years and years if you don’t enjoy doing it. When you have one, make sure you continually push the boundaries further and expand your horizon. Before long you’ll find yourself spending your time in a much more beneficial way rather than pointlessly stalking your so-called Friends on Facebook, all the while writing comments that don’t make sense.