On May 12, 2009 I read a list of advice my brother-in-law received during graduation from Yale Law:
  • An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two, and an hour of work before noon is worth two.
  • Always pick your kids up from school. That’s when they want to talk.
  • Never let your skill exceed your virtue.
  • Never take less than two weeks off when you have a child or for your honeymoon. Don’t let them talk you down.
  • When you mess up, admit it frankly and quickly, and move on.
  • Always do your very best in your job, but if you don’t like what you’re doing enough that you would do it for free, quit. (This seems extreme, but at the same time mentally liberating.)
This last one hit me like a bolt of lightning. Of course I had heard similar advice, like do what you love and you would never work a day in your life. But this one was different. Would I do it for free? That is a pretty high standard. I enjoyed the job I had. Everything has ups and downs, but generally is was ok. I was doing work that I enjoyed. I was working with technology and finance/accounting- it provided enough of a challenge and the company was growing well. But, I knew that I wouldn't do it for FREE. 

What did I love enough that I would do it for free? I figured that if I was actually willing to do it for free, then that would be a good start. So I explored taking the CFA or CAIA certifications- maybe I would like to do more security analysis. No. I started looking into commodities and opened up a margin account, funded it with some money. But that wasn't it. Did some real estate analysis, properties in the mid-west have attractive cap-rates. No. 

I ended up coming back to what I used to do: helping small companies grow. This time I wanted to grow something scalable- with national or international scope. I started attending tech events, reading everything online, buying books, and discovered something I love doing for free- and what I do really well. I am very good at working in the space between Technology and Business. I ended up quitting my job to work on these things full-time. I discovered there are two reasons to only work in a job that you would do for free.

Personal Satisfaction
This is the thing that most people kind of intuitively understand. Maybe it is because we have all had some days, or weeks, or years.... where we HATE waking up and going into the job. Where many of us trip up is trying to identify what gives us enough satisfaction that we would do it for free. Most people I talk to think that this means that they should work in video games, sports, or some other recreational activity that they enjoy. This perspective blocks one's ability to actually discover what they love. 

The process I recommend to discover what you would do for free is to discover what you loved doing when you were 12. Why? There is something a little innocent about that age where we are developing our own personality and growing up but not old enough to get distracted by things such as making more money, working in a prestigious career etc.... In the words of the Black Eye Peas:
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I'm gettin' older, y'all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin'
Selfishness got us followin' our wrong direction

So what did I love doing when I was 12? Playing soccer. But as I explored what it was that I loved about soccer, I loved being the best player on the team. I loved leading the team. I loved playing creatively, doing the unexpected. I loved quickly finding solutions to problems on the field and planning tactics before the game to get an advantage. I loved practice and constantly improving. Now I do the same things that I loved when I was 12- but I do them with tech companies.

We should only work in something that we would do for free because only then we will have the intrinsic motivation to attempt to achieve mastery- or getting better and better at something that matters. Mastery is something that I found in my process of discovery. Books such as "Drive" by Daniel Pink and "Delivering Happiness" helped me understand that when we are really focused on becoming a expert at something that matters, we cease trying to accomplish things because of the external motivations. For example, when I was in college I had to take a Geology class. I didn't care about geology and I took the class just for a grade. I don't remember much from that class. I enjoyed Economics though and I earned a minor in Economics because I enjoyed the theory and enjoyed learning. I never had to worry about getting an A in Economics, because I was mastering the material.

But mastery does not refer to perfect execution and knowledge. As Pink says in his book, “the mastery asymptote is a source of frustration.  Why reach for something you can never fully attain?  But it’s also a source of allure.  Why not reach for it?  The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization.  In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.” I believe that we can only pursue mastery of things that we do based on internal motivation. Not if you are there to collect a paycheck.

So how about you? What would you do for free? Well you must find out what it is and quit your job so you can do it. You will enjoy your work much more and will become an expert in your field.



08/19/2011 09:50

I think about this concept often, but articulating it like this provides the perfect perspective in few words.

I have yet to take a long-term step out of academia, but when I do I hope to position myself in an environment where I will be surrounded by like-minded individuals.

I hope I get to use this as an interview question one day. "Would you do what you do for free?".

08/19/2011 14:00

I wholeheartedly agree! I've also been mulling these things over for the past few years and when the BP oil spill occurred, I started this project which led to a new business.

As I began the project I realized that I was indeed working my tail off for free and simultaneously that it was some of the most gratifying work I've done to date. I hope it will continue to be sustainable in the coming years : )

Thank you for the wonderfully written post & here's to listening to your heart! : )

08/19/2011 16:16

I liked this post, very inspiring.

Sometimes it is not that easy do what you'd do for free, BUT, we all work in order to achieve that. ;)

Adam Malter
08/20/2011 17:19

Well intentioned, but ultimately delusional first world bullocks.

Work is fundamentally about putting food on your table and a roof over your head. It's wonderful when that activity can also contribute to your personal happiness. However, lately I have had to deal with too many young people who believe they are entitled to one of these "dream jobs". There is nothing wrong with working in a trade or otherwise doing work where the existential benefit is getting paid. (No one is going to install septic systems or help fill potholes on the highway in the middle of the night for free)

It's going to be a tough decade while we collectively recalibrate our expectations.

08/25/2011 09:46

@Adam Malter

If everyone realized their full potential to awaken to live in harmony with their inner integrity, our world could very well transform into one where things like filling potholes become obsolete. It's not a matter of entitlement to a "dream job," it's a matter of principle and of the potential for a global revolution.

08/25/2011 10:14

Yeah, what Mr. Malter said. This is not practical advice.

P R Sureshkumar
08/25/2011 17:02

I resigned my job as Metallurgical consultant in 2008 from Jewel Metallochem and Joined VETA as a faculty where I wanted to do the work as a student paying the fees to VETA. But I was not taken seriously and they kept paying me Rs. 6000/batch.

Along with this I joined MLSL, Nagothane in the same year and promised the technical director of the company that I would work for free for 24 hrs x 7 days a week. But the technical director on his own offered me Rs. 35000/month.

Later when I found that even the technical director's vision was narrow I, though only senior manager, started quetioning him. This affected his ego and though I was right in the decisions I took, I was forced to leave the company.

What I found out was that the middle management was doing more damage than benefits. So my decision was to by pass the middle management and do everything directly between the workers and the corporate management and I could show them that how it could be made practical.

It was possible by implementing the Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) training pillar. Identify the training needs of each employee rather worker and categorize the workers into
0. Knows nothing.
1. Knows only theory.
2. Knows only practical.
3. Knows both theory and practical.
4. Knows both theory and practcal, and also to train others.

There were around 20 workers in the category 4 out of the total 400 and I imparted soft skill training for them so that they could train technical expertise to their fellow workers most effectively and to the point and on the job as well.

As this was making a very effective turn the middle management lobby threatened the top management that they would leave the company along with some highly skilled workers and the top management succumbed to the threat and I was declared out.

So the million dollar question is "As I was forced to quit my job when I had been working for free, can I continue to work for free now?".

At present I work for money and feel confortable as I have no headaches as I don't worry about anything else but money. I take spoken English class for chidren in the neighbourhood of my remote village Vaidyasalappady, Madathumpady, Thrissur in Kerala and am enjoying the beauty of my girl friend Nature. Ha ha ha!
Doesn't it make sense?

08/25/2011 21:54

Yes, its true. If it is so, then whatever you earn is a bonus and it will be wonderful. I love Hospitality Industry and let me see whether I have the courage to get ahead like what this article says. I remember one of the Indian Cricketer called Kapil Dev said, he said playing is so fun and in addition I get money to have fun. Wonderful and so true.

Yashpal Purohit
08/26/2011 00:14

yes whatever we do is for internal satisfaction, 1 need to learn satisfy oneself and life becomes easy process.

08/26/2011 04:30

Yes - good one - particularly important for teachers. I hate whiny teachers - they bring our professional into disrepute and I'd like them to do something else. Am not in the position to be able to do anything for free and would also liket o do what I do for a lot more money. Whilst no one is in teaching to get rich, some are in it for security, holidays or whatever. I am definitely a teacher because I love it and could not imagine doing anything else.

08/26/2011 14:26

So true, I started up a Computer Training Service business about 10 months ago for the every day consumers and especially seniors.

I really love what I do and really love helping others and prayed that I could do this for free one day.

I get such great satisfaction in helping other to learn how to use their computer comfortably.

But the truth of the matter is I need to make some sort of a living at it to support my family.

It hurts me when a customer tells me they can't afford my lower then normal rates.
I will from time to time help others for free when I feel convicted to do so.

When the day comes where I don't need the money, Then I would more then happy to do what I do for free.

Terry JP Arsenault

P R Sureshkumar
08/26/2011 18:05

Dear Terry JP Arsenault,

Wow! That is simply great job you are doing. you are in the right path.

Do not doubt that the time has not yet come where money is not required. It has already come once you start thinking in the way you are. Money is only a medium to exhange the products or services. Money alone can not exist when products and services are absent but products and services can exist without money. Have Faith, Hope and Love and everything is possible and stop the waiting game for something to come. It has already come and the time is ripe to start doing everything without money. Once people just realise the fact that currency is only a piece of paper that eases the operation and nothing else. Those illiterate I mean so called literate people who are engaged in money doubling business are fools and end up in eternal perdition not Paradise. I am telling you your Paradise is assured.

Bye with Lots of Love,
P R Sureshkumar.

08/29/2011 09:24

Your post - or rather several of the comments on it - inspired my blog post today. Love the post, done the same and am doing what I love. It's worth every risk.


Lara Mei
09/01/2011 12:56

@ Adam Malter
I disagree that no one would want to fix potholes in the middle of the night for free. There ARE people who actually ENJOY building, fixing, perfecting, maintaining. People who enjoy making things look good... renovating.
So yes... this IS very practical advice, but only for those who are ready to take it.
So thank you, David :)

Hates Lame Advice
09/08/2011 13:22

This is one of the dumbest things I have read in a while. Kudos to the one brave enough to spout this drivel bullshit.

09/12/2011 02:23

I couldn't care much less at becoming an expert or becoming better at anything. Most of the things I do enjoy, I stop enjoying them when I start mastering them. On the other hand, I don't enjoy constantly applying for new jobs at all either. An to be honest, how could I know what I enjoy, since I didn't try everything yet?

Comments are closed.