The Long-Term Benefit of Working for Free

Knowledge and opportunity can be just as good as cash.
March 21, 2018

If you’re serious about making money, go work for free.

This isn’t a joke. A paycheck is very short-term thinking. Think about it: If you play everything perfectly and stumble out into the real world and into a job that pays a fortune, what are you really going to make? If you’re lucky, $100,000 maybe? In fact, if your first job pays $100,000, you’re about as rare as an ice-cream-secreting unicorn.

Even if you can command that kind of money out of the gate, you’re still committing financial suicide if you prioritize money over experience. If you can get both—awesome, you’ve won the lottery. But most people at the beginning of their professional lives will have choices that look like this:

Option A

Take a job that pays a person with my experience the maximum amount of money. There’s a catch here: Your employer is paying top-shelf dollars and thus expects top-shelf results. This means you’ve got to deliver from Day One. You don’t have the room to take a lot of risks or take on tasks outside of your core responsibilities. You’ll be paid well, but you’ll be wearing golden handcuffs.

Option B

Take a job that pays below market, or if you’re really smart, pays nothing at all. The reason I say the smart person chooses nothing at all is that in most internships, the understanding is that you’re paid in knowledge, access and opportunity. When you’re getting paid, the understanding is that you’re going to earn your keep. Even when it’s a relatively small amount, you get classified differently in people’s minds.

Related: The Best Career Advice, From Successful People Who Made It to the Top

Let’s compare the types of payments:

Cash

Cash buys things. That’s rad. It’s a heck of a lot easier to eat when you’ve got cash to spend. But that’s it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s great if invested, but at the beginning of your career, you probably won’t be making enough to invest a meaningful amount. If we’re being honest, it’s going to go to things like food, rent and entertainment.

Knowledge, Access and Opportunity

None of the above can be deposited into the bank (yet), but all of them are yours to keep. Instead of turning your time into money, you’re turning your time into an investment in yourself.

 

Employers pay for results. Results come from knowledge. And as I’m sure you’ve heard before, who you know is as important as what you know. When you’re working for free, you’ll be shocked by who’s willing to give you their time. Once you’re around important people, you’ll be able to turn that access into opportunity by taking on responsibilities that allow you to blow people away.

Now the hard truth is that you still have to be awesome. That’s the only way to make this strategy work. If you don’t dazzle, you’ll be forgotten. But even in Option A, if you don’t dazzle, you’re ultimately just racing to the middle.

Knowledge, access and opportunity are the gifts that create long-term financial returns. For that reason alone, you’re better off trading your time for knowledge and connections. Live with your parents, sleep on a couch or sleep in your car if you have to. If you’re an unstoppable beast who is serious about success at the highest level, it’s a very small price to pay. If you want to retire as a middle manager with a gold watch to show for your efforts, by all means, choose Option A.

Related: I Stopped Chasing Money—Here’s What Happened

 

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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