Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Problem With Working for Free

You should insist on getting paid for every word you write — that’s the advice of blogger Barney Hoskyns. “Stop working for free,” he says, and this applies not just to writers, but to “all freelance content providers (musicians, writers, actors, photographers, designers etc).” He doesn’t mention this, but this is an issue that virtually every business, not just a creative freelancer, will eventually face.

There actually is something to the idea of refusing to work for free, but there is a problem with the advice coming from a blogger. Somehow, Hoskyns got to the end of a 500-word post without any irony, without any hint of awareness of the contradiction in his message.

We all need to get paid somehow. Yet bloggers, with rare exceptions, earn less than a starvation wage for their efforts. Hoskyns may be the exception, but he does not say anything in his post to set himself apart from the mass of bloggers, so his example does not match his message.

No creative worker can get started except by practicing, and practicing by its nature is unpaid. You do not become an in-demand photographer by refusing to pick up your camera. Nor does it make any sense to call yourself a pianist unless you love to play the piano — indeed, you must love it so much that you will cheerfully play your instrument for many years before anyone will think of paying you to do so.

The problem with working for free is that it can continue indefinitely. You can fool yourself into thinking you are doing better or more valuable work than you actually are, and keep going as you are instead of improving your approach. The problem with staying quietly at home until a paying job arrives in your inbox is that the world may not know you exist. That too can continue indefinitely. Worse, if you are a creative person refusing to create anything, you are letting your skills and your soul waste away.

Do what you love. Try to arrange a good deal for yourself. But don’t refuse to get out of bed, and out on the street if that’s what it takes, on the theory that you should get paid first.

Now, here is where “Stop working for free” makes sense. Maybe Hosykns was imagining something like this. Suppose you have some paying customers. They pay you enough to keep going, but it is only enough work to keep you busy for maybe an average of four hours a week — so you spend most of your time chasing the customers you think you should have, and more often than not, doing free work for them. That business model, in all likelihood, is nonsense. You are probably still trying to track down the stories you heard when you first got into the work you are doing. Stories, though, are secondhand information at best, and they point to the past. Stories are better than no information at all, but they aren’t necessarily very reliable as a guide to action. To expand on the work you are doing, what you need is the truth — and the flow of money, even if it seems small, points to where the truth of your situation is.