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The Amazing Benefits of Working for Free

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Some things are worth more than money — like an education and the people you meet along the way

Imagine walking into the office of a wealthy individual. This isn’t just any person, though. This is one of the world’s most celebrated entrepreneurs. This is someone who is in the news daily. Social media uplifts this person as a world changer. You have followed this person’s rise and greatly admire this person.

Then also imagine that you are desperate for a job. You have a family. Bills. Responsibility.

You know this is a great opportunity. You don’t want to mess it up. You have skills that this person would surely find useful. You could offer immense value to her if she understood what you could do. This conversation might change your entire financial future.

The conversation starts quickly, without you having a chance to ask for help or maybe even a position in this person’s vast empire.

And before you can ask, the wealthy individual poses her own question to you.

“Would you be willing to work for me, for free, for 10 years, to learn how to run a business and do exactly what I do?”

How would you respond?

Would you laugh? Would you cry? Would you dismiss the idea entirely?

Would you be willing to work for free for 10 years? Would it even be possible?

Would your answer change if it were five years? Or one?

Would it ever be a good idea to work for this type of person?

When does it make sense to work for free?

Learning how to answer this last question has been more important than I initially suspected.

I think I answer the question every single day.

We Only Value What We Pay For

Too many people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

— Ann Landers

For most of us, if we don’t pay for something, we don’t value it. And often the greater the price that we pay, the more that we will value what we purchased.

But what about a variation of those statements?

If we don’t charge for something, then can it be valuable to us?

I have learned that the answer is yes.

The person who receives at no cost has much different benefits than the person who gives without payment.

As in many things, the giver can benefit much more than the recipient.

Work to Learn

“Work to learn, not to earn.”

— Robert Kiyosaki

When should you work for free? Here’s the first principle to consider: work to learn, and not to earn.

When the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield was attempting to make his mark as a comedian, he knew that he needed to perform often to improve and perfect his act. But it was the early 1960s and he was a 40-plus-year-old aspiring comedian. Many night clubs preferred younger comedians to draw in more crowds. At those times, young comedians like Bill Cosby dominated the stand-up scene.

He knew that he needed to perform often to improve his act. So he often worked for free or for a fraction of what other comics would be paid. Rodney knew that he needed to continuously perfect his craft — even if it meant that he would not be paid for his time. But each time he got better. His timing improved. His confidence improved. His act improved.

He was working to learn how to be a comedian — not necessarily for the money. He actually sold aluminum siding during the day for money while he perfected his act.

During the day, Rodney Dangerfield sold siding. At night, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Work to learn, not necessarily to earn.

Work to Learn, Even When in “School”

If you learn to never work for money, you will be very rich.

— Robert Kiyosaki

When I went to law school after working for 10 years, I consciously tried to follow this principle.

Many times school counselors will tell students to “build a resume.” I was told this in college and in law school.

I tried it in college. But I actually hated this idea in concept. So in law school, I tried something different. I wanted to develop useful skills so that when I graduated I could find a job or start my own practice. I was not concerned about how I would “look” on paper. I wanted to make sure that however I looked on paper actually matched the skills that I developed.

So I tried to select courses and activities in school that would allow me to learn what I wanted to learn, without really caring about how they would look on my resume.

You see, I had hired many people before I went to law school. I don’t think I ever spent more than two minutes looking at someone’s resume — and rarely more than a minute or even thirty seconds.

So I only participated in activities that allowed me to gain a useful skill. I didn’t care how my resume would look. I decided to work to learn, instead of working to earn.

Nonetheless, I was criticized by some because I intentionally worked for free for a small law firm. Many other students sought jobs to make ends meet. But I wanted to learn how a small firm worked. I wanted to gain experience in a small firm setting. So I found a small firm and I offered to work for free.

And when I applied for a summer position at a much larger firm, my experience at the smaller firm really helped me — not just in landing the job but also in the job. I actually had skills that I could use. And in the end, the larger firm offered me a full-time position when I graduated.

Here’s another example from law school. I wanted to learn how state politics worked. So I emailed a state representative. I said that I was willing to work for free in order to help him with whatever he needed. I was in law school and would love to do something related to the law, but I was open to helping in any way.

The state rep responded quickly. He was excited to hear from me. He actually needed someone to research certain issues for him since his time was so limited. So that became my job. I researched issues for him for eight months. I learned how the law and politics collided. And I gained valuable research skills. It was a great experience.

Certainly, that experience looked good on my resume. But it looked even better when the state rep was elected as Lieutenant Governor of the state. The improvement in my CV was a byproduct of working to learn — and not working to earn.

When working for the state rep, I had no desire to make money or even build my resume. My resume ended up looking great, but I didn’t care. I gained valuable skills. I learned something that I could not learn any other way.

I was not focused on the thirty seconds that someone would use to review my credentials. I was focused on the impact I would make when I could use my skills.

This can apply to anything.

Work to Learn, Even When You Need Money

I had tried the principle of working to learn even before I went to law school. While I ran a media department, I wanted to make some extra income. I decided to start freelancing using my audio and video skills. As an added benefit, I would develop my own skills in those areas.

Work to learn, not to earn — that was my strategy. So I decided to work for free.

I made offers to ten people that I would do video work for free. Three accepted. I did all three projects without charging any of the businesses or individuals.

I learned something on all three projects.

  • I learned enough to feel comfortable to start charging for my work.
  • I learned new video and audio skills.
  • I learned how to conduct a production, from both the business and technical side.
  • I learned where I needed help and who could help me.

I wanted to earn money — but the first step, for me, was not to focus on the money.

The first step was to focus on learning — learning how to gain the skills so that I could earn the money.

After those three projects, I picked a modest rate and then moved forward. And with each project, I increased my rate as I improved my skills. Eventually, I felt comfortable charging a fair amount for a professional production — and clients even paid that rate!

And it all started because I was willing to work for free.

Work to Learn, Even When You Already Earn

You may even want to work for free when you do not need to. When I started practicing law, I worked mainly as a business attorney. But I wanted to represent artists and participate in the film industry as a trusted advisor.

I received a call one day: John, we need your help. We need an entertainment attorney.

At first, I was excited. This is exactly what I wanted to do. But then, anxiety hit. I had never performed that type of service before.

Fortunately, I was ready.

  • I had already decided that I wanted to practice entertainment law.
  • I had already purchased books — with my own money — about the legal side of films, books, music, and television.
  • I had already decided that I was willing to work for a discounted rate, in some cases for free, in order to learn how to practice in these areas.

For one project, I represented two producers for over six months in an intense television negotiation. During that time, I received no payment. But I also received an incredible education in entertainment — one that can never be replicated.

I was willing to work for free, in order to learn how to work.

I jumped in and have never looked back. Now, I can pick and choose projects with more discretion. But I will never forget that the only reason I can do that is that I was willing to work for something other than money.

I did the same thing when I started representing startup companies.

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me, working for free (or at a discount) has been a great place to start.

That’s how it works. Work to learn, not to earn.

Once you learn, you will be able to earn whatever you want.

The People You Will Meet

Here’s another principle: work for the friends you will make, not for what you will take.

Imagine if you decided to select your work based on the people that you will work with, rather than the amount of money you will receive.

I remember thinking that I did not care where I worked after law school. I did not care what area of law I would start practicing. I cared about one thing: to be around the best lawyers possible. If I could surround myself with great lawyers, then I was destined to become a great lawyer — even if I ended up practicing in a completely different area of law.

Working for free allowed me to have access to great people. I would have never known the Lieutenant Governor if I did not offer to work for free, at least initially.

When I worked for free at the small law firm, I had the chance to meet local community business leaders. And one of the lawyers that I worked for has a high position in large business that I interact with often now. Again, I would have never met this attorney unless I first offered to help him for free.

Don’t worry about what you will take, work for the friends you will make.

Prove First, Earn Second

Here is another principle that describes when I find it valuable to work for free: work to prove that I have the skills to add value to others.

Rodney Dangerfield used this effectively. He certainly needed the repetitions when he was returning to comedy in his 40s. But at some point, he needed to book shows that would pay him. He did not want to sell aluminum siding forever. His act was developing. He had honed his new image, one in which nothing goes right. Rodney kept facing rejection, however.

So when club owners started to object to paying Rodney to perform for their audiences, Rodney offered to perform for free in order to prove to booking managers that he could deliver.

One day Rodney’s agent called Rodney to cancel a show. Rodney was distraught. But he had an idea. Rodney proposed that the agent could cancel the gig, and only be out a little money. Or he could wave his agent fee, and wave Rodney’s fee — but still let Rodney perform. That way the club would get the entertainment, the agent would make the club owner happy, and Rodney would get to perform. The agent took the no-lose deal and Rodney performed.

The audience loved Rodney Dangerfield. And Rodney did this over and over again until he was making more money than he knew what to do with.

Eventually, he stopped selling aluminum siding.

After I worked for free to start my production company, I realized that I was missing something that most other video companies had: a demo reel.

But I could not develop a demo reel until I actually had cool work to show. My solution was to do more work at a discounted rate in order to attract work that would impress potential clients.

It worked. A good demo reel attracts better clients and actually lets you charge more for your services.

Here’s the principle: prove first, earn second.

When to Work for Free, and When Not To

“There is always free cheese in a mousetrap.”

— H.R. Gross

I don’t always work for free. In most circumstances, I charge for my services. But there are still times to work for free. I still use the above principles.

So when should you work for free?

  • When you need to develop skills
  • When you need to prove that you have skills
  • When you want to create or build a relationship

I often do not charge my friends or family members, either, out of respect for the relationship. It is a personal choice. But it is also based on building the relationship and having respect for it.

Free Can Lead to Freedom

Working for free — or at least a discount — can lead to incredible opportunities. I know successful entrepreneurs that intentionally pay low to start, and then use the initial period to determine whether the person is a good partner. If there is a fit, then the entrepreneur moves forward with the relationship, often granting equity. In that case, working for free or at a discount can lead to a great opportunity.

I once heard Gary Vaynerchuk say that he thinks people should pay him to work for him and spend time with him. It might be worth it for some people. What’s more important: the money, or the relationship?

The truth is that anyone can give when they know they are getting something in return. Only the great souls can give with no expectation of a reward. The world is searching for people who give first, and it handsomely rewards those who give before receiving.

If you always count the cost, you will always miss the gift.

During your life, you may not need to work for free. But you still might want to.

John Mashni
John Mashni Author

I only write about what I have done: no theory. Writer, Attorney, Entrepreneur, Movie Producer, and more… 

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