Side Quests

In yesterday’s article about different types of quests, I defined side quests like this:

A side quest is an optional side project that doesn’t directly support your main quest, but completing a side quest could make it a little easier to tackle your main quest or a subquest, such as by building up your skills or gaining additional resources.

In a game a side quest may involve doing a favor for a townsperson to earn some extra gold, weapons, or items, none of which you actually need to complete the main quest.

I want to delve into the value of side quests a bit more here.

A side quest fits somewhere between a subquest and a minigame. A side quest doesn’t fit your main purpose like a subquest does, so side quests usually do feel like they’re off to the side of the main thread of your life or work. But they also feel a little more important and less trivial than minigames.

A good side quest can still provide meaning and value, but it may not support your biggest goals in life. However, it’s common for a side quest to eventually become part of your main quest or evolve into a new main quest.

In 1999 while I was busy running my computer games business, I wrote an article and got it published in a trade association newsletter. I’d call this a side quest – an interesting mode of expression to explore on the side. I wrote the article for other software developers, not to attract more game customers.

Over the following 5 years, I wrote about 25 free articles that were published, plus some extra ones that I wrote for CNET for which I got paid (around $7000 total if I recall). I’d say that all of these were side quests. But these activities began having side effects, such as raising my profile in my field, attracting more networking opportunities, and building an increasing base of readers who appreciated the articles and wanted more. I also began getting some invitations to speak at conferences.

As another type of side quest that began even earlier, I invested a lot of time exploring personal growth, including reading hundreds of books, doing many audio courses, and attending occasional workshops and seminars.

In 2004 I started blogging, and my side quests of writing articles and exploring personal growth combined to help me define a new main quest. In retrospect, I could regard those pursuits as subquests of a new main quest that was yet to be identified. But most of the time I engaged in these hobbies, they just felt like side quests.

I’ve seen similar patterns play out for many people. Our side quests often turn out to be subquests in disguise. Some years later we may discover a new main quest emerging from one or more side quests, which often leads to a business, career, or lifestyle transition.

I recommend investing in interesting side quests that you enjoy since it’s hard to predict how your main quest will change over time. And if you don’t really have a main quest yet, it may very well evolve from your exploration of side quests.

If you don’t invest in any side quests, you may feel more trapped or stressed. If your current main quest dries up or feels finished, where will you look for your next main quest? You may resist letting go, even when your old direction is dead or dying, because you haven’t developed other options via side quests.

You don’t have to engage in a side quest with the intention of making it a main quest. Side quests often evolve in directions that are hard to predict in advance. When I started writing articles, I wrote for software developers at first. It was only much later that I connected the dots between writing and personal growth and began writing articles for non-developers.

The world may also evolve to make it easier for one of your side quests to grow into a main quest. WordPress 1.0 didn’t come out till about five years after I started writing articles. There wasn’t really a blogosphere that I could see when I started. But eventually this opportunity opened up, and it was great timing for growing my side quests into a new main quest.

There can also be a tendency to force a side quest in the direction of a main quest before it’s ready for that type of transition. Sometimes side quests need a longer incubation period before they’re ready to give birth to new main quests.

Learning guitar is a current side quest for me. I started last year, and I’m continuing to take weekly lessons with the same teacher. My progress is slow and gradual since I’m not investing a huge amount of practice time in this, but I like learning the instrument as well as music theory, and I’m getting a little better each month. I just got a capo today, and I just started learning to play one of my favorite songs, “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. Do I see how this could become a main quest somewhere down the road? Not really. For now this definitely feels like a side quest. Pushing it in the direction of a main quest would feel forced and unnatural at this point.

That said, I still like to remind myself that life can be very fluid and that side quests have the potential to evolve into main quests. So I do keep this in mind while learning and practicing guitar. When I’m having a hard time with a new skill and feeling a bit frustrated, such as when practicing chords that make me feel like I don’t have enough fingers, I note that there could be a bigger purpose that I can’t see yet. And that helps me keep investing in the learning and skill-building experience – and to keep showing up for more lessons, even when I’m not feeling good about a week’s progress.

It’s easy to abandon a side quest by telling ourselves that it’s not important enough. Sometimes we just have to trust our intuition when it keeps nudging us to invest in something on the side. We may not see where a side quest will lead, and we may not be able to justify the decision to anyone else, but sometimes the inner guidance knows best.