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How "personal projects" shape well-being
The way you and your team answer "what are you up to?" reveals a lot about your purpose, personality, and flourishing in Arts Management and beyond.
you could measure a life in as many ways
as there were to bake a pound cake,
but you still needed real butter and eggs
for a good one — pound cake, that is,
but I knew what she meant.
Rita Dove, from “This Life”
I have a complex relationship with “to do” lists. Whether others prepare them for me or I make them myself, the instant I have a written task to accomplish, a voice within me rails against it: “don’t fence me in.”
It’s not rational. It’s not productive. I’m working through it. But I think the underlying fear is that written tasks define and determine my attention, my day, and even my identity. And I prefer for all of those things to be open and adaptive.
Psychology scholar Brian R. Little would likely encourage me to get over it. His research suggests that the bundles of tasks we identify as salient to our current moment – the projects we share when asked – say a lot about who we are, what we’re navigating, and even how we’re thriving or thrashing about in our lives.
In other words, we are defined by what we do, or at least how we think and talk about what we’re doing.
Little (2008) defines “personal projects” as:
…extended sets of personally relevant action that range from daily chores (e.g., ‘Order more USB keys, again’) to defining life commitments (e.g., ‘Be sensitive to my partner’s needs, always’). They may be self-focused or dedicated to others, submitted to begrudgingly or pursued with zealous intensity.
Elsewhere, Little and colleagues (1992) describe them as “the middle level muddlings through which we negotiate our daily lives.”
Personal projects are different than “project management” or “work-oriented” projects in the array of domains they occupy (work, home, leisure, community), who defines them (the person involved), and the nature of their deadlines (projects require a deadline in most project management definitions, while personal projects can be open-ended). As Adam Grant, Brian Little, and Susan Phillips clarify (Little et al 2007):
In the project management literature, a project is a formal endeavor undertaken by members of the organization, whereas a personal project is an individual’s subjective construal of his or her pursuit or activity.
Why does that distinction matter to Arts Management? Because personal projects represent the full array of pursuits or activities an individual identifies as important to them – not just work. Because work projects are generally described and defined by the employer not the employee. And because all of these personal projects, individually and together, impact who and how we are in the world – including at work.
In short, “personal projects provide a lens through which to examine not only individuals but their enveloping contexts” (Little et al 1992). And individuals in context is the core concern of Arts Management.
Over four decades, Little has found a deep connection between the shape and nature of our personal projects and our experience of well-being. He concludes that:
…the cumulative evidence indicates that human flourishing is related to having projects that are relatively high on meaning, structure, community, and efficacy and relatively low on stress.**
Obviously, in the workplace, it’s part of the arts manager’s job to ensure that meaning, structure, community, and efficacy are all aligned and abundant in the work of their team. It’s also the arts manager’s job to assess and mediate stress across the organization.
But this framework urges us to think more holistically, beyond work projects, if we want ourselves and our collaborators to thrive. It is all of our personal projects, together, that shape our well-being and the well-being of those around us.
And while it’s not our business to monitor and manage everyone’s personal projects, our business is more humane if we honor the complex and competing array of projects in play.
** Little (1989) provides the following definitions of project meaning, structure, community, efficacy, and stress:
Project meaning dimensions tap whether one’s pursuits are seen as worthwhile or worthless. Project structure dimensions assess the extent to which projects are organized or in disarray. Project community dimensions evaluate the extent to which projects are both known and supported by others. Project stress dimensions question whether the demands of our projects exceed our capacity to cope with them. Project efficacy dimensions probe whether one’s undertakings have been, and will continue to be, progressing well.
Dove, Rita. “This Life.” In The Poets Laureate Anthology. Edited by Billy Collins and Elizabeth Schmidt. First edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Little, Brian R. “Personal Projects Analysis: Trivial Pursuits, Magnificent Obsessions, and the Search for Coherence.” In Personality Psychology: Recent Trends and Emerging Directions, edited by David M. Buss and Nancy Cantor, 15–31. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.
Little, Brian R. “Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, no. 3 (2008): 1235–54.
Little, Brian R., Len Leccl, and Barbara Watkinson. “Personality and Personal Projects: Linking Big Five and PAC Units of Analysis.” Journal of Personality 60, no. 2 (1992): 501–25.
Little, Brian R., Susan D. Phillips, and Katariina Salmela-Aro, eds. Personal Project Pursuit: Goals, Action, and Human Flourishing. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, 2007.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Hosting & Guesting
Hosting involves inviting, greeting, and supporting those who enter your circle; Guesting includes acknowledging, honoring, and listening in the circles where you are a guest.
Framework of the Week: Personal Projects
Psychology scholar Brian R. Little developed the Personal Projects framework to describe and analyze the way people understand and organize their actions in the world. He defined personal projects as “extended sets of personally salient action in context.”
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