Soul Work: The Power of the Passion Project

Real Arters talk about the importance of pursuing personal work.

In a 2006 letter to a group of high school students who had requested he visit their school, Kurt Vonnegut offered up some sage advice.

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Vonnegut’s plea for personal exploration resonates particularly with those who work in ‘creative’ fields. From design to art direction, strategy to account management, people in creative environments often find a necessary escape in projects outside of work that offer the opportunity to explore new mediums and technologies, embrace a greater degree of autonomy, or simply enjoy the freedom of unlimited possibility. They are the kind of self-directed endeavors that facilitate genuine growth and discovery and that inevitably spill back into the day-to-day grind because if we’re doing it right, at the core of what we do at work each day is something we love.

Three Real Arters sat down to talk about what they’re working on at home and in the studio. What they describe is a great appreciation for process and collaboration, the need for deep engagement, and the ongoing search for balance between work and play, freedom and limitation, creativity and constraint.

Real Art Blog

Brian Stephens (left)
Job: Front-end web development
But also! Calligraphy

Alicia Grodecki (center)
Job: Front desk
But also! Music

Reka Juhasz (right)
Job: Creative design
But also! Letterpress

On Passion

Brian: Somewhere along the line, I found that drawing letters was something I liked. I didn’t overthink it, there wasn’t an agenda with it, I just started doing it. I would research videos, blogs, and articles. I would copy what other people did until I got the hang of the tools and the techniques and started finding my own path with it.

Alicia: I guess you could say the band got started almost of necessity, really. It’s really hard to articulate what I get out of playing music. Personal fulfillment. Self discipline. A sense of camaraderie with my fellow musicians. A lot of free pizzas. But seriously, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I don’t feel like I do music because I want to – it’s because I have to. It makes me feel whole, and I would like to think it defines so much of who I am.

Reka: The project started from the idea of designers collaborating, banding together, defending the honor of letterpress. The most amazing reward is the people I work with. At Real Art we work very collaboratively, and this is also true in my personal and freelance work. It is something I have gotten a lot out of as an art director on this project particularly. I love the community aspect of asking a crew of 11 different designers every year if they want to do something crazy fast (they only have a month) and potentially for free (if we don’t sell out).

On Balance

Brian: Suffice it to say, there’s tons of crossover for talent between Real Art jobs and personal projects. I’ve done large-scale lettering projects for Real Art and then I’ve also coded up websites for myself or my friends. I think having both types of projects going on is important to balance. Working on something without restrictions or deadlines helps me think outside the box and be more bold with my aspirations. Conversely, working within heavy restraints keeps me focused and diligent with my work. So at the end of the day I’d say it’s all about that balance with my focus on growth.

Alicia: Luckily, we work in such a creative environment here at Real Art, that I find little bits of inspiration everyday. It’s a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by such creative and driven people – it inspires me to do better, work harder, “hustle.” Therefore, outside of work, I treat the band like my second job. I have found that when I actually set aside pre-scheduled time for music, I am less tempted to be distracted or find excuses to slack off. I pick two nights a week to work on the (less fun) business aspects of managing a band, and two nights to sit down and just be creative.

Balance is hard but also intrinsically personal.

Reka: Balance is super hard. Super hard. I have trained myself to sleep fairly little, and that’s not good. But it works for me. I have come to realize that I can only stay up late and work on the type of projects over the weekend that ignite my soul. I have to do passion projects, otherwise sleep wins. It took a few years, but I am slowly learning the balance of saying no, saying yes, and how to manage a project. Balance is hard but also intrinsically personal. I cannot tell you to do what I do and expect that you will also be happy. I would say balancing work and side projects is a battle where you have to gut check daily. What makes sense, what keeps you happy, and where can you shave off time to sleep?

On Maker-ship

Brian: To me, being a maker means that you love to build for both function and aesthetic. It means that you never stop learning. You’re not afraid to try something new, even if you look silly doing it, because you believe in the possibilities of what’s on the other side of that process and how rewarding it can be. And maybe the merit of learning a new skill or trade is actually more rewarding in itself than the projects that get produced from them.

Maybe the merit of learning a new skill or trade is actually more rewarding in itself than the projects that get produced from them.

Alicia: I’d like to think that, as humans, we are lucky enough to have brains that are wired to create, invent, innovate, inspire – and to neglect that part of ourselves would be tragic. Being a maker means that we get to utilize this gift that we have to affect others as well as ourselves. We get to use our own hands, our own minds, our own ideas, to create something out of nothing. To do something that has never previously existed before that moment. Much like Vonnegut said in his letter, creating helps the soul to grow. I wholeheartedly agree with that.

Reka: The word maker is used a lot in our industry. I identify with it as a human who creates something from scratch but aren’t we always inherently makers? We make our coffee and breakfast, make decisions, and then some of us art and design for a living. What I make ends up being a product for sale. Who the hell am I to be called a maker more than you are a maker? Being a maker is really just a lover of processes and finding vulnerability to be creative in all aspects of life.


Got you hooked? Here’s more:


For the Love of Letterpress
One Real Arter has committed to keeping an arcane printing technique alive


Get Inspired
Real Art’s Executive Creative Director and “fearless leader” Chris Wire talks about inspiration


How To Balance Client Work With Passion Projects
Fast Company showcases one design studio founder’s secret

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