Being Free vs. Working for Free

(Nick’s Notes: This is my second of four posts on Isaac’s ideas on work, see the first part here)

Advance Freedom Physically (Bratton, LBD)

Another one of Issac’s ideas that I found interesting was,  if you could, he thinks you should pick working for free at your dream job then working for an average or even good pay at a sort of adequate job:

Young people: if you have the choice:

Work with awesome people on interesting stuff for no pay


Work with average people on average stuff for a salary higher than most of your peers

Which would you take?

I suggest the former will pay off 5 or 10 tens more over the short term psychologically and over mid-long term financially as well.

Avoid anything that makes taking the former opportunity more difficult. (Debt, obligation, geographical restrictions, pressure from others, promises you wish you hadn’t made, etc.)

Imagine your favorite existing company or your dream startup idea. If someone there came to you and said, “We want you to work with us! We just can’t pay you right now.”

Could you do it? Would you?If you’re 15-25, I’d say a major goal should be to be in a position where you can afford to say yes.

As Issac notes in the post I linked above, a lot of people seemed to take umbrage at this suggestion.

In fact, some of the most well “liked” posts on the original Facebook thread where he talks about this are the ones pointing out how “expensive’ it is to work out for free. A few people seemed to be implicitly or even explicitly suggesting that Isaac was coming off as really “tone deaf” in his post. I can’t say I’m surprised people had that perception given that working for free can be difficult in almost any situation.

And even if you’re not in debt or something, the basic costs of living make such a proposal hard to do. Even if you’ve got few obligations to others and the ability to move around either due to having friends in varied places, good transportation, other things or some combination of things, it can still be difficult. And so I agree with other folks that Isaac isn’t  considering these costs as well as he should be.

Take me for example, (no, not physically) I just got an amazing offer this morning to live somewhere else rent free for (effectively) a few weeks. I only have a crumby part-time job and my living situation isn’t wonderful so my prospects don’t seem that great. On the other hand, I need the money from said crumby job (to some extent anyhow) so I can go travel in mid-October for the Students for Liberty Regional Conferences like I did last year.

So my decision can’t be just based on my short-term interests.

Similarly, someone asked whether they’d get kicked out of their house if they took the job. What about their car insurance? If they have kids? Do they have to be dependent on someone else?

Some of these things are obviously investments that might lessen or increase the relevance of Isaac’s proposal. But on the other hand some of these seem like basic costs that would matter to almost anyone.

My recent situation however isn’t exactly analogous though, to be fair. I don’t have some guarantee of a better job for the two weeks in New Hampshire. I’m just choosing to either have a really good opportunity for little to no costs or the current opportunity which has similar financial burdens, but I’m making money. But there are also mental things to consider as I feel I’ll be happy if I take a break from work for a few weeks and then come back. Maybe I’ll feel more confident about what I want to do or hell, maybe I’ll even feel happy.

Regardless of whatever happens, it’s clear that even though I have few obligations in my life it isn’t just as simple as picking up and leaving. But Isaac gives us some clarifying (though unfortunate) comments:

No, the posts are not anti-work. No, they are not anti-money or anti-capitalist. No, they do not claim in any way that everyone should share the same time preference or risk tolerance. No, they do not imply that working for free is morally or practically better than working for pay.

Damn, I was hoping it was at least the first and third bit (anti-work and anti-capitalist)!

But seriously, I don’t think the problem here is that folks thought that he was saying that working for free is somehow practically better than working for pay but that it’s largely impractical to begin with.

At least for many of us even with few obligations it’s hard to see how you could do this some sort of job if you weren’t also getting a sweet housing deal out of it or something. If you weren’t crashing at a friends house or if you weren’t living with your parents or some other low-cost thing. That all seems to foster (though obviously doesn’t necessitate) dependence to me.

Now, obviously there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. And the point isn’t to moralize about these choices so much as it is to point out that there’s some basic problems with how we view choice in this economy.

Take Isaac’s response here to see how he misses the point of his interlocutors:

Do it when you’re young and inexperienced your opportunity cost is low and your financial obligations are few. Invest in yourself by trading pay for great experience if you can. That’s what many people think they’re doing with school. What’s different about working instead?  In many cases, it’s better.

I’ll go sentence by sentence:

  1. Even few financial obligations might overwhelm someone who is making nothing from their job.
  2. This sounds good but “experience” doesn’t necessarily give you money.
  3. And to take the last three sentences as one point since they’re all connected: The difference with school is that you have a guaranteed place to stay, eat and have friends, etc. You may have only a few (or none) of these things at your dream job.

Now, I don’t mean to beat up on Isaac’s argument here. I think his intentions are good, look at this for example:

But if you wish you could but think you can’t because you have a lot of financial or other obligations, the point is to consider ways in which you can reduce those obligations.  Be in a position to take advantage of the best opportunities (measured on all fronts, not just by pay).

If this is Isaac’s intention then I definitely respect it. I feel like less people should strive towards having less obligations in their life to one extent or another and particularly financial ones. I think this can make people’s lives more spontaneous, varied and exciting in a lot of ways.

Obviously it’s not for everyone and some people just like their roots where they are and I can respect that. Every day I have a to-do list and it’s comforting to see the same things, do the same things and be with the same people. I totally get that routine and structure are important things for us as human beings. But that doesn’t mean we need to do it in all aspects or that some aspects are worth emphasizing less than others.

As an aside and while we’re talking about financial burdens, I wish I hadn’t gone to college because of the debt I accrued.

To be fair, it’s not a lot (especially compared to most people) but it’s still something that (sometimes) goes into the way that I make financial decisions and it sucks. On the other hand I did have good experiences there that I wouldn’t take back even if I could. I made some really great friends (one of whom I still hang out with every now and then) and I learned some cool stuff. So it’s not like it was a total waste or something I’d go back and change if I could.

But let’s move on to another part of the article:

I think people overestimate the long term value of money early in their career, and underestimate the long term value of time well spent early in their career. The latter has greater returns. I’ve talked to many stressed out new employees who are thinking about not taking a job they love because it pays $27,000, instead of the $31,000 they’re making at the job they can tolerate. I’ve been there myself more than once.

The thing is, in a few years, and certainly in ten years, that extra money will mean little to you, as much as it feels like right now.  But your time and how well you spent it will mean even more, not to mention the network and skills you build along the way.  Odds are that not just in happiness, but in long-term financial rewards, you’ll do better going with the one that is more up your alley vs. a few thousand bucks.

There’s definitely some truth to this, though I’m not the biggest fan of careers as a concept. I think it’s probably true that more experience that you value as fluctuating levels is more likely to be long-term worthwhile than money which has a fairly stable value (relatively speaking at least).

And going with what you know as opposed to just making a few more bucks (especially if you’re that high up on the economic rung and not heavily invested in many things) seems like an easy choice. But then I’ve been poor or lower middle class all of my life. So the number $27,000 just looks like an imaginary number to me, honestly.

More interesting is this next bit, with the emphasis being mine

I’ve never worked for free except on side projects and launching my own company. I’ve never had an internship. I’ve always been a paperboy or grocery clerk or golf course go-getter or construction worker or something else to earn money. The sooner I was able to merge my interests with my income the happier I was.

That’s not for everyone. But I can tell you many of the best decisions I’ve made were saying no to well paying jobs. I could have been a pharmaceutical rep at age 19 and had a company car, benefits, and starting at $50-60k. I couldn’t be happier that I picked a series of jobs with a higher ceiling and more in line with the kind of people I wanted to be around and the kind of stuff I really love doing.

That extra $25k in starting salary seemed like a million bucks at the time. Now it seems like it would have been more than foolish to take it instead of the path I chose. If you’re doing great work and working hard at it, the financial rewards will come.

I emphasize that part of the post to say…Isaac hasn’t even really done what he’s suggesting other people do with their lives. And that seems weird to me. Advising people to do something that you yourself self-admittedly have very little experience with come off as increasing and not decreasing the potential of tone-deafness.

Now, I don’t think it makes Isaac’s advice debunked in some sense, but it does make it look a little strange given his own lack of experience with the very thing he’s suggesting other people do.

Sure, he’s met other people who may have been happier had he followed this advice but having personal experience seems a bit more relevant. It’s also worth noting that while some of his best decisions were made towards “not well paying jobs” that’s not what the post is actually about. It’s about working for free not for inadequate wages. So this seems like a different context to be coming from even if it’s in a similar ballpark.

The last bit about “financial rewards will come to you” sounds a little “financial guru” to me. And I don’t say that to be insulting but to raise skepticism. Saying something like “If you just work hard at it and are doing well then good things will happen!” treats life like some sort of mathematical formula where work is (as I noted in the last post) a magical ingredient that’ll always tend to get you to where you need to go.

The thing about that is it’s (again) not so simple. There are plenty of pitfalls that can happen with working too hard, people can be chosen over you even if you do great work because of favoritism or layoffs, etc. There are all of these little things that can happen that totally screw you over even if you’re doing everything “right” according to the American Dream formula that I feel Isaac is drawing on here.

Finally, Isaac doesn’t think he is preaching dependence, or so he says:

I am not preaching dependence. Far from it. This is a message of independence. Don’t just take internship after internship and live with mom and dad until you’re 40. Heck no. Don’t be dependent. Be independent of as many things as possible – debt, promises, other people, and even a certain income level. That’s the point. Pick things that take advantage of your strengths even if the pay is low upfront because of what it can be down the road, and because of the fulfillment you’ll get. Don’t get locked into an income level that your friends think is cool if it limits your options.

While I appreciate Isaac laying this out for us it doesn’t exactly inspire confident in me.

For one thing, he doesn’t really state how he’s not “preaching dependence”. You’ll probably be dependent on someone if you’re not working. Hell, I work 20 hours a week for $9 an hour and I’m still heavily dependent on the generosity of other people. Think about if you’re not working for money at all and what that can do to your dependence – independence ratio.

But to be fair, there’s some good stuff here too I also don’t like promises and I don’t typically make promises myself, I rely on my reputation and people’s trust in me to be its own implicit promise. But explicitly promising is something I only do in pretty big situations. Generally speaking, I want people to be on a level of trust with me where I don’t need to say, “yes, I promise this’ll be doneBecause to me at least, if I’m already at that level then I feel like, at least on some level, I’ve already lost too much of their trust.

Now, that doesn’t mean I advocate (or have) just giving up if that happens to you. If you need to make promises in order to either gain someone’s true or, perhaps more importantly, regain it then go for it. But ideally you don’t need to be assuring that heavily so early in a given relationship with someone else.

Back to the main point, the original scenario wasn’t whether the pay was “low upfront” but no pay at all. Again, Isaac seems to be moving the goal posts a bit. I don’t think he’s doing this intentionally and maybe his original interpretation of “no money” was something like “inadequate money” but it isn’t made clear.

I’ve talked about my low income and other people’s obligation issues in terms of finances as a response and so have others.

But for Isaac your lack of income can be a sort of asset to you:

So you’re young and and your income is low. That’s a huge advantage for you. That means if your friend tells you she wants you to help launch a new business, but you might not get paid for the first six months, you can probably swing it, since you’re already accustomed to eating Ramen and you have no DirecTV to cancel.

Some of the best and brightest are incapable of jumping on great opportunities because they’ve earned decent money quickly, then hemmed themselves in, unable to ever downgrade their short term quality of life. If you can, you have a competitive edge.

Obviously, no one wants to stay forever on a diet of canned chicken. But when you’re young, and at the beginning of the discovery process of what makes you come alive, it’s helpful to be free from a huge list of material needs. You’d be surprised how much an early high income can stall further progress towards your goals.

That’s an excerpt from his article that I took to be the main point or at least one of them.

And again, Isaac has some truth on his side for sure here. I’ve actually become quite used to being poor and the idea of being poor. It doesn’t (and never really did, honestly) bother me on some fundamental level. Sure, I don’t love having only a little bit of money. And if I could have a job that I could work that would pay me well and I’d enjoy you bet I’d jump on that.

But even with all of that said I don’t mind being in a place where $27,000 seems like an imaginary number to me. Or some pie in the sky fantasy that I doubt will happen for me anytime soon. I’m comfortable with living a sort of minimalist lifestyle where at least around 75% of my stuff is books and everything else is just my laptop, my smartphone and a few other essentials like clothes. Besides that I don’t have a huge interest in amassing wealth or buying the newest thing unless something breaks or something is really worth my time (and ideally free!).

So I see what Isaac is saying (probably more than he himself would be comfortable with for that matter) and this sort of thing is what gives me the chance to travel every now and then or at least conceive of the possibility. Some people can’t even imagine leaving where they are to go off and do something else for a bit. But for me this is almost always at least something worth considering if nothing else. That’s a “luxury” I have as a poor person, I guess.

The funny thing though is that this “luxury” doesn’t really do much for me. It might put me in a slightly interesting context that other people can’t imagine or would like themselves in but it still isn’t great in a lot of ways. I might have my imagination open more times than not but that doesn’t mean I have the material necessary to actually pull it off.

And that’s part of where Isaac’s argument falls short for me. I don’t think that poor people can just have their assets last as long as he may suppose. I do agree it’s an asset though (as it has been for me!) but I’m not sure I’d count it as strongly as he does here.

But for Isaac it’s not about working for free so much as being free:

Many people said this was a luxury only the elite or wealthy could afford. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, lack of income can be an asset. We tend to live up to our earnings. Those with a less costly lifestyle are more able to jump on opportunities that don’t pay well upfront. The whole point of the post was that it’s good to be in a position where you are most free to seize on opportunities even if they don’t have an immediate paycheck. Avoid or reduce debt, cut expenses, maintain a minimalist life, be productive so you can do more with less time, try to save some money, etc.

You may have to or want to work a job you don’t care for and earn money for 60 hours a week but that still doesn’t preclude you from going to that awesome local marketing firm you’re interested in and begging them to do 20 hours a week of work even if they can’t pay you. I contend that the latter will be more beneficial to you long term than the former, and if you work hard and well might turn into more pay as well.

The post was not about working for free. The post was about being free. The freer you are to jump on great opportunities the better, and the more things that make that hard you can eliminate the better.

Going back to the intentions point I made earlier (and that I think others have made too) I appreciate what Isaac is trying to say here. It’s agreeable to me as well that we should avoid or reduce debt, etc. etc. so that you can…well Isaac leaves that open. For me I do those things so I don’t need to work so hard. If that means I have to take a shitty job every now and then for only adequate pay then fine.

Maybe that’s just the sacrifice I have to make in my life until I can get better professionally at writing…or ya know…actually try to publish my work for money.


But anyways, I appreciate Isaac’s intentions here, I just don’t think his arguments and examples belie it as well as he hoped it would.

One thought on “Being Free vs. Working for Free

  1. Pingback: You're Never Done Burning Out - Abolish Work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *