How Can You Capitalise on Your ‘Hidden Work’?

During some recent idle file-browsing, I stumbled upon some writings from my undergraduate days. Nothing earth-shattering: just a few ten-year-old assignments that I’d forgotten about. I almost moved past them, assuming they’d be basic and a bit rubbish. But on a whim, I started reading.

As I scanned the pages, I thought: hold on – these are quite good! In fact, they were good enough that I can use some of the ideas within and rework them for new publications. In the case of one (a creative work), I needed to put in only an hours’ work to get it ready for submission to a publisher. Quick win! Yeah!

And then a thought hit me like a lightning bolt from the gods of inspiration:

How much of my good work remains hidden?

When writing my undergraduate assignments, I never expected to get anything more out of them than grades. And while some of those assignments were 2am pre-deadline waffle, others were full of quality ideas. But these good pieces of writing were just languishing in my files, not supporting my current career in any way.

It got me thinking: how could I exploit the ‘hidden work’ from my past to serve me in the present? Would it be possible to transform some of my old, buried work into something new, fresh, and helpful? Like Maria making dresses for the von Trapp kids out of drapes, could I make something glorious from old, overlooked material?

What else was in those files?

Stacks of files with arrows pointing to the parts that are good quality or still usable.

I went back through fifteen years of work, and found a shocking amount of material that was full of promise, yet half-finished or unexploited:

  • Creative projects that I’d abandoned part-way through, including most of a novel
  • Research ideas that I didn’t know how to progress earlier in my career, but that could now be actioned
  • Business ideas that were full of promise, but only half-developed
  • Organisational systems and sketched-out algorithms that could be adapted for my current projects, or even commercialised
  • Experimental methodologies that I’d tried and rejected, but which I could still write about
  • No less than fourteen outlines for books I want to write, some with quite a lot of research already done

These discoveries have had three effects:

ONE: I’ve learned, through a sudden abundance of irrefutable evidence, that I am not a finisher. I pour work into ideas that I then abandon when I want to pursue another idea. Too much inspiration, not enough staying-power. Now that this character flaw is clear to me, I can work on it.

Woman's face obscured by long grass

TWO: Just as I lack staying power, I also lack the bravery to put my work out to the world. Why did I abandon all those projects and ideas? It may have been partly because I didn’t want (or know how) to finish them, but it was also a way of staying safe and invisible. You’ve heard of hiding one’s light under a bushel? I was hiding my light in my Dropbox.

THREE: This is basically like having all my career Christmasses at once. I can pick up the projects-with-promise and get a lot of quick wins out of the relatively small amount of work required to bring them to fruition. I don’t need to start from scratch on new projects: I just need to capitalise on the huge amounts of work I’ve already done.

This has implications for my research life, as there is a huge amount of academic work I’ve done that has never seen the light of day. For starters, I tried a novel software methodology as part of my PhD research – using software which would normally ‘read’ genetic code to read fiction books instead, and determine their linguistic and semantic ‘relatedness’. The method ultimately didn’t produce reliable results, and therefore didn’t make it into my thesis. But I could easily get a journal article out of the experience.

This also has financial implications, since some of the hidden work can be commercialised. For example, I like to throw ‘eat-along screenings’ of movies for my friends, showing food-filled movies in my living room, and cooking the dishes from the movies to present to my friends as they appear onscreen. Over the years, I’ve created documents full of recipes, shopping lists, and minute-by-minute prep schedules to support this unusual hobby. There could be a market to sell PDFs of those documents to like-minded film fans online.

There are so many career opportunities within my hidden work that I won’t be able to exploit them all right away. Some would require quite a lot of updating, and some may not be worthwhile. But I’ll cherry-pick the ones that can serve me right now, and make a mental note of the others for later.

So: how much value lies hidden in your files? Which of your past labours could yet bear fruit? Here’s how you could find out:

  1. Set aside some time for a ‘surveying’ exercise. Do this when you have time to devote to it; say, a week off, or the upcoming summer holiday break. Although it takes time to survey your hidden work, that time can be a great investment if you discover months’ or years’ worth of work that can be used afresh.
  2. Scan through your past work. Find old journals and notebooks. Browse old hard drives. Look through your old files – both personal and professional – and identify anything you think might hold value. Think broadly when you do this. What could be publishable? What could make money? What could save you time? If you are specifically looking to advance your research career with this exercise, focus on your research notes and writings. What could form the basis of a new publication, a refined thesis chapter, or a potential career pathway?
  3. Make a plan to capitalise on your best and most useful hidden work. What do you need to do to exploit this work? Who do you need to talk to, and where do you need to take it? Decide which of your hidden work is useful now, and which might be useful in the future. (If other people contributed to this work, make sure you talk with them about any further uses for it.)
  4. Review this plan, and make sure it serves your interests.
  5. Put the plan into action!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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