CAREER: The Benefits of Free Work

Just the other day, I overheard someone pitching himself as an aspiring photographer who planned on starting his own wedding photography service. I think his aspirations are great and his portfolio definitely shows potential, and surprisingly enough, I didn’t feel even a tinge of jealousy about how clear and dedicated he was working towards this goal of his. For one, it doesn’t take much to start your own business as long as you have the grit for it. For example, if you really want to pursue photography professionally, you have to take the initiative to learn about what I call the three Ts: terminology, technology, and techniques. If you didn’t major in photography back in college, it may be a greater challenge for you to pursue it in an environment where there is no structure unless you impose it on yourself. But if you really want to make a career out of producing photo content, then nothing can stand in your way as long as you work hard for it.

As a freelance content creator, it was never my intention to pursue photography or videography seriously. You can’t say that I’m creating content “for fun” either because my projects do involve real people who are serious about moving forward with our collaborations.

I learned about the concept of “free work” from watching Charlie Hohn’s talk at TEDx years ago (circa 2011) and wanted to emulate his plan. I thought it was pure genius and his idea stuck to me since. Only until several months ago did I decide to take a risk and pitch myself as a freelance content creator who was willing to work for free.

There are so many benefits to free work that you don’t gain from an internship.

And by “free work,” It really means projects that I take on free of charge.

Money has never been intended to be part of the deal – my full-time job already took care of that.

My main objective behind freelancing for free is that I wanted to gain everything that can’t be bought with money: experience, skills, exposure, connections, and etcetera. And it’s true when people say that money can’t buy happiness (at least, not all the time) because I don’t think I would’ve gained the unique experience that I have today if I had set a rate to charge as my prerequisite for others who want to work with me. For that reason and many others, I want to share with you why you should consider pursuing free work if you’re not quite certain about where you’re going professionally. Here are the benefits to consider that I think are worth mentioning (some have been brought up in Charlie’s TED talk):

  1. Working on projects you actually care about: For some, their job is not their passion or what gets them up in bed every morning. I remember one of my mentors telling me how we all split our lives into three parts: work, sleep, and everything else. And doing “everything else” means not just taking showers, cooking meals, and washing dishes, but also partaking whatever activities that makes you fell self-fulfilled and excited about living the next day. Working for 40+ hours per week have definitely made me much more appreciative of the time I have for myself and how I choose to spend it. So, make sure not to waste that third of your life!
  2. Meeting and working with people who you find inspiring: If you haven’t read about my rant on how hard it is to make friends in the real world, then I’ll tell you know what you should take away from it and that is it’s really hard to find people who you can truly connect with, especially when you’re trying to connect over your own specific interests. So, when I finally do meet people from different walks of life who are interesting and have a lot to say, I want to be in their presence forever. In life, I try to constantly surround myself with people who I aspire to be wherever I go.
  3. Having agency over your projects: The best and most exciting part about working for free is that the sky is the limit. You’re not constantly under time constraints (some projects are exceptions). Also, because you’re not depending on your free work projects as a source of income, you are not obligated to stay committed to a certain project that you’ve fallen out of love with over time.
  4. Developing skills and gaining knowledge that are actually relevant to where you want to go: Unlike my job, my free work allows me to have full control over what I learn. Whether it’s through gaining industry knowledge from my peers or developing technical skills on my own, I am growing in the direction that I have set for myself.
  5. Exposures/new experiences/access to spaces that you wouldn’t be able to have without your free work: You would not believe some of the places and events I’ve gone to because of my free work. Even when I was starting out with my personal style blog, I was already venturing out to new worlds! I have felt so grateful for being given an exclusive look at what goes behind the scenes with people and places. Understanding the nitty and gritty of the backroom has given me a lot of insight on where I want to go from here.

So, if you are lost and still trying to figure where to go next, I’d suggest you to consider looking into doing some free work – especially if you are the creative type!

However, going back to comparing my ultimate goal as a content creator to others’, I do want to stress that I personally believe free work doesn’t mean that you have to end up making a career out of it. I think what Charlie mentioned in his TEDtalk that I haven’t covered much on is the number of potential exit opportunities that you can gain from staying committed to your free work projects. In fact, many people have turned their free work into professional careers of their own. Look at the new wave of Youtubers out there as an example of people monetizing their platform of creative expression. 

Although I do think that it’s great and inspiring if you choose to incorporate content creation as part of your work life but as someone who wants to use content creation as more of a platform of creative expression, I think my decision deserves to be honored as well. I am not saying that I am not open to being paid for my work but that’s not my main objective doing free work for others. I mean, who knows what I’ll be working on a year from now but I don’t want to think about long-term monetary benefits when I could just enjoy what I’m doing currently.

I think this mentality of mine goes back to my belief in detaching myself from my ego when I’m creating something and creating for the sole sake of my own interest and personal growth. So, if you end up not making a career out of it, that’s okay because in the end, it’s whatever you want your free work to be.

Good luck.

Jess.

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