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« January 2013 | Main | March 2013 »

Should you work for free?

That depends on what you mean by "work" and by "free."

Work is what you do as a professional, when you make a promise that involves rigor and labor (physical and emotional) and risk. Work is showing up at the appointed time, whether or not you feel like it. Work is creating value on demand, and work (for the artist) means putting all of it (or most of it) on the line.

So it's not work when you indulge your hobby and paint an oil landscape, but it's work when you agree to paint someone's house by next week. And it's not work when you cook dinner for friends, but it's work when you're a sous chef on the line on Saturday night.

And free?

Well, you're certainly not working for free if you get some cash at the end of the night. But what about a nine-minute segment on 60 Minutes about your new project, or a long interview with Krista Tippet on her radio show? Should you get paid for that?

Clearly not. Not if you think you'll be able to turn that platform into positive change, into increased trust, into something that moves you forward.

[As more of us work with abundant ideas, not scarce resources, the question comes up more often. I'm not delving at all into the idea of donating your work to a cause you believe in. That's not a selfish calculation, it's a generous one, and I'm all for it, but do it for that reason. Because paying your work forward is the right thing to do.]

Harlan Ellison is gifted, inspired and entertaining, particularly in this video. But his profane refusal to work for free confuses work-for-money with work-for-actually-valuable-attention. (In his case, he's right, the attention on the DVD had no real value to him. Yes, they could pay for that--but see the point about positive externalities, below.)

Of course, many people who would have you work for free value attention far differently than you or I might. No, writing a guest blog post for a little blog is probably not valuable enough to you. No, designing a logo for the zoo for free is probably not valuable either. And the argument that it is valuable (it's good for your portfolio!) is inevitably selfish and irrational. The lions get their food, the vets get paid and even the guy selling peanuts doesn't do it for free...

On the other hand, for a long time it made perfect sense for opinion leaders without big blog followings to write (for 'free') for the Huffington Post. And there's still a line of people eager to write for the New York Times op ed page, not for the money. And if Oprah calls, sure, answer her, even though her show isn't what it used to be.

The more generous you are with your ideas, and the more they spread, the more likely it is your perceived value goes up.

There are double standards all over the place here. There was a national kerfuffle (from people who should be doing something more productive) about Amanda Palmer giving musicians a chance to practice their hobby or voluntarily gain exposure, but no one complains about all the showcases and music festivals that don't pay musicians a penny. There's a law against having interns do work that ought to be paid for, but college football players give up their health and their time to participate for free in a billion-dollar industry...

Positive externalities are one of the magical building blocks of the web. When the work you do creates useful side effects (like the smell wafting from the bakery down the street), it's not only selfish to prevent others from partaking, it's actually stupid. The infrastructure we all depend on only works because we've made it easier than ever for ideas to spread and be shared. That's different, though, from bespoke work and live work and risky work on demand.

The challenge of this calculus is that it keeps changing--the landscape changes and so does your work. When I started my professional speaking career fifteen years ago, not only did I speak for free, my company even paid money to sponsor events so I could speak for free. When TED offered me a chance to speak for free, years later, I took it, because, in fact, the quality of the audience, the attention to detail and the chance to make an impact all made it worth it. But when SXSW, a corporation that makes millions of dollars a year, offers me a chance to be a speaker, pay my own way and hope to get some attention from their very overloaded audience, it's easier for me to say, "free makes no sense here."

Some of the factors to consider:

  • Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?
  • Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?
  • Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for?
  • If I get paid, is it more likely the organization will pay closer attention, promote it better and treat it more seriously?
  • Do I care about their mission? Can they afford to do this professionally?
  • Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?
  • What's the risk to me, my internal monologue and my reputation if I do this work?

If you're an up-and-coming band building an audience, then yes, free, free, free. It's always worth it for you to gig, because you get at least as much out of the gig as the organizer and the audience do. But when you've upped and come, then no, it's not clear you ought to bring your light and your soul and your reputation along just because some promoter asked you to.

Here's the heart of it: if you're busy doing free work because it's a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work, stop. When you confuse busy for productive, you're sabotaging your ability to do important work in the future. On the other hand, if you're turning down free gigs because the exposure frightens you, the same is true... you're ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.

[Thanks to Steve for the push. And to Jessica for the flow chart. Both of which they did for free. Because it wasn't really work and it wasn't really free.]

Destabilizing the bullying power structure

Bullies aren't welcome. For every bully, there are a dozen or a hundred workers/kids/individuals that would prefer not to be bullied. Given these overwhelming odds, how do bullies continue to get away with it?

Bullying is what happens when an individual with power exercises that power against people who don't fit in. By threatening to expose or harm or degrade the outlier, the bully reinforces the status quo in a way that increases his power. [Physical bullying is a different phenomenon... I'm mostly writing here about emotional bullying.]

"I will punish you because you don't fit in, and I will continue to punish you until you do."

Bullying persists when bureaucracies and hierarchies permit it to continue. It's easier to keep order in an environment where bullying can thrive (and vice versa), because the very things that permit a few to control the rest also permit bullies to do their work. The bully uses the organization's desire for conformity to his own ends.

At the fabulous lab school in Manhattan, they're making huge progress at undoing this problem. A recent assembly (organized and run by students and volunteers) was created around weirdness, fear and most of all, "owning it." (The adults in these videos were only 10% as honest and risk-taking as the kids that stood up on stage. The kids talked about physical and mental disabilities, lifestyle choices and the things that made them sing).

When students are given permission to be their best selves, they take it, just as you and I would like to. Because, it's true, we are all weird. When there isn't a race to fit in the most, bullying those that don't fit in loses much of its power.

This is incredibly brave and risky for those in charge. It involves trusting people to become something wonderful, as opposed to insisting that they fit in at all costs. 

We're all a lot weirder than we'd like the world to know. Given the chance, we can share that weirdness and run with it. It's our best shot at a world with art, and a world without bullies. (More here, but even better, go do this in your organization...)

Weird shirt

 

Planting, harvesting and your fair share

When there is scarcity, we worry a lot about getting our fair share—what goes to him doesn't go to me. The harvest becomes fraught with danger and competition.

When we worry more about planting, though, sharing the harvest gets a lot less complex.

Plant enough seeds and the scarcity eases. In fact, if you plant enough, you'll never have to think twice about the harvesting.

Excoriated

There are only three reasons to really chew someone out for something they did, only three reasons to have an emotional tantrum, to use cutting language and generally make them feel lousy:

1. You want them to never do it again.

2. You want them to stop doing it right now.

3. You feel upset about the change and taking it out on the person who took action makes you feel better. First clue, "he deserved it!"

Can we agree that the third reason is selfish and there are almost certainly better responses if your goal is one or two?

Is a famous thinker better than a great one?

Does a bestselling author have more to say than someone who has written a brilliant book that didn't sell?

Does a tenured professor at Yale deserve more credence than someone doing breakthrough work at a local state school?

If the violinist in the subway has played to packed houses, does that make him better than the previously unknown singer around the next corner?

For physical goods, a trusted brand name certainly increases the likelihood of purchase, because the risk is lower. We figure that Nabisco is less likely to sell us an unflavorful dust cookie than some unknown brand at the health food store. For a new flavor, the brand makes it an easier choice.

An idea is different, though, because the only apparent cost is the time it takes to hear it. (That's not really true, of course).

And yet we hesitate to invest the time to hear ideas from lesser-known sources. It's not fair to the unknown inventor, but it's true.

I think this is changing, and fast. The permeability of the web means that you don't have to start at the top, don't have to get picked by TED or a by a big blog or by anyone with influence. Pick yourself.

It's true that when you pick yourself, people aren't as likely to embrace your idea (at first). That's because the personal risk of hearing new ideas from new places is the fear that our opinion of the idea might not match everyone else's. The real risk of interacting with unproven ideas is the fear that we might not react in a way our peers expect. The desire to fit in often overwhelms our curiosity.

It takes quite a bit of work (and a lot of luck) to acquire a level of fame. The question that might be worth asking is whether or not that effort is related to the quality of ideas underneath. Harvard has been around for nearly 400 years. That doesn't mean the brand name is worth as much as we might be inclined to believe.

Branding started with pottery, beer and biscuits. Now it affects the way we think about ideas, people and even science. Buyer beware.

Confusing loyalty with silence

Some organizations demand total fealty, and often that means never questioning those in authority.

Those organizations are ultimately doomed.

Respectfully challenging the status quo, combined with relentlessly iterating new ideas is the hallmark of the vibrant tribe.

Open, generous and connected

Isn't that what we seek from a co-worker, boss, friend or even a fellow conference attendee?

Open to new ideas, leaning forward, exploring the edges, impatient with the status quo... In a hurry to make something worth making.

Generous when given the opportunity (or restless to find the opportunity when not). Focused on giving people dignity, respect and the chance to speak up. Aware that the single most effective way to move forward is to help others move forward as well.

and connected. Part of the community, not apart from it. Hooked into the realities and dreams of the tribe. Able and interested in not only cheering people on, but shining a light on how they can accomplish their goals.

Paradoxically, the fancier the conference, the more fabled the people around the table, the less likely you are to find these attributes. These attributes, it turns out, have nothing to do with fame or resources. In fact, fear is the damper on all three. Fear of failure, intimacy and vulnerability. Fear closes us up, causes us to self-focus and to disconnect.

When we find our own foundation and are supported in our work by those around us, we can get back to first principles, to realizing our own dreams and making our own art by supporting others first and always.

The mirror and the periscope

A long time ago, real estate developers figured out that one way to save a lot of money was to put a mirror in the lobby next to the elevator banks. People would happily look at themselves in the mirror while patiently waiting for the elevator... meaning that the developers could get by with one fewer (expensive) elevator.

If we want to, we can turn social media (and our day) into a giant mirror. "I wonder what they think of me?" "I wonder what their reaction was to what we just shipped?" "I wonder if they've figured out I'm a fraud?" We hide this mirror gazing under the guise of customer research, but particularly for soloists, artists and anyone who puts her name on her work, what an opportunity to waste time and energy checking out what the online world tells us about our role in the universe.

On the other hand, social networks now give us a better opportunity than ever to find out how other people are doing. "I wonder if Trish is happy?" "I hope that those protesters have enough blankets." "Are our children learning?"

It's human nature to care how the tribe (and strangers) think about us. It's more important, though, to wonder how they feel about themselves.

Those people

At a recent seminar, a woman who helps run a community college stood up to ask a question.

"Well, the bad news," she said, "is that we have to let everyone in. And the truth is, many of these kids just can't be the leaders you're describing, can't make art. We need people to do manual work, and it's those people."

I couldn't believe it. I was speechless, then heartbroken. All I could think of was these young adults, trusting this woman to lead them, teach them, inspire them and push them, and instead being turned into 'those people.'

You know, the people who will flip burgers or sweep streets or fill out forms all day. The ones who will be brainwashed into going into debt, into buying more than they can afford, to living lives that quietly move from one assigned task or one debt payment to another. If they're lucky.

No, I said to her, trying to control my voice, no these are not those people. Not if you don't want them to be.

Everyone is capable of being generous, at least once. Everyone is capable of being original, inspiring and connected, at least once. And everyone is capable of leading, yes, even more than once.

When those that we've chosen to teach and lead write off people because of what they look like or where they live or who their parents are, it's a tragedy. Worse, we often write people off merely because they've been brainwashed into thinking that they have no ability to do more than they've been assigned. Well, if we brainwashed them into setting limits, I know we can teach them to ignore those limits.

Humanize it

Quite intentionally, all Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars are identical.

No one says, "oh, this one is really special, Brian made it."

What industrialists do: They dehumanize what they make, so it is the brand and the organization and the factory that is known and trusted, not the person on the line. (This is not always a bad thing--there are many items where consumers prefer perfect instead of human).

The outcome of this effort is that employees are fungible commodities, as long as they are able and willing to follow the manual. That's all well and good if you're the owner (or if you need a reliable supply of chocolate), but it doesn't play out so well for the worker, particularly in a society with ever-faster-shifting job slots.

The only alternative is to humanize our work. To create something that only you could have made, or said, or conceived of. When it looks and feels like you, when you are the trusted source (not an anonymous trademark) then you are on the spot, under pressure and deservedly valued.

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