Why Working for Free Pays My Bills

This is not a logical post. It is not based on data or research or cold, hard facts. It probably makes no sense at all, but stay with me on this one:

Volunteering my time is ultimately what pays my bills, and I’d have to say that about 80-percent of my work hours is dedicated to not getting paid.

As a freelance writer, I can make some pretty solid money doing odd jobs for random clients. This past semester was rather fruitful in fact. Heck, I even like doing the odd jobs—maybe I just have a short attention span, but I like learning new things and broadening my skill set.

But while it’s profitable work, it is rarely resume-worthy. Some clients micro-manage and I end up with work that I would be embarrassed to show to future clients (anyone ever do web design? yeah, it’s absolutely like that). I spend more time applying for jobs than actually working sometimes, mostly in the hope that I’ll land a really cool gig.

Yeah, RIGHT.

So instead I get my kicks by just working for free.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a whole process to go through to write for the places I want to write for and do the things I want to do—even throwing yourself at someone and telling them they don’t have to pay you requires jumping through a few hoops. But the end result is a “job” that you actually enjoy.

A perk of volunteering is that by not being paid, you aren’t tied into the job. I’ve only had to use that as an out once, and for a non-profit organization sadly. I wasn’t doing any work. Literally. My supervisor would keep saying that we would have a meeting so I could help with a big event they had coming up, but kept cancelling on me. After two weeks of sitting in an office for two or three hours a day playing solitaire, unable to work because I didn’t have access to anything and because no one seemed to want to take five minutes to give me a job, I called it quits. I’m pretty sure no one noticed I had left, even though I called and emailed.

But really, volunteering is about building a resume. I don’t get paid for all of the work that (I hope) will enhance my resume and send me down the career path I want to be on. Neil Gaiman gave a great commencement speech about this. He said:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes¬† it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be—an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words—was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.

[…] I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.

This has been the driving force behind everything I do. I know where I want to be—a writer for video games, or maybe even an author; a blogger who is always learning; and someone who leads teams in marketing, writing, or editing. Three peaks of the same mountain. As I get closer to it, the peaks become more clear. If I could one day make a living doing all three, that would be ideal, but making it to one of those aspirations would be just fine with me.

So what does this have to do with paying my bills? The obvious answer would be that I can get better jobs because my portfolio is better, but that’s the boring answer. Networking is the more interesting part. I have met and worked with people across the world, and every once in a while a connection pays off in a real, cha-ching sort of way. People pay good money for good work and good workers, and having people who can say, “Yes, she’s a brilliant worker and totally rad,” is what really gets the bills paid.

A final piece of this odd puzzle is having a contingency plan. In my case, I am lucky enough to have a partner who loves his job and makes a liveable wage already; I’m luckier still that he believes in me enough that when I am going through a dry spell he foots all the bills. Because of him, I can focus more on my goals and less on my bills. But I always have a backup plan.

For a year after completing my undergrad degree, I was able to live relatively comfortably on about $500 a month. I make sure that at any given time, if I were back in that sort of situation, I would be able to make enough to survive. It’s not about expecting to be there again—it’s about knowing how much I need to make to live and work and using that to motivate me. I’m beyond lucky that I am not there now, but I never want to be complacent, so working for free keeps me honest and builds up my resume so that I CAN get paying jobs when I need them. And with student loans to pay back, I will need them.

“Luck is useful. Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get,” Neil says in his speech. “But there is luck, and it helps.”


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