“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
– Henry David Thoreau
If you have ever tried to get a start in the creative industries, you have asked yourself this question. Over and over.
The short answer: Don’t confuse busy for productive. The truth is, many people keep busy with unpaid internships and free work because it stalls the difficult process of finding someone to pay you. If this is the case, just stop.
On the other hand, working for exposure can be a great way to get your foot in the proverbial door. If it really does build up your resume or your reputation it might be worth your time.
So how do you tell the difference?
That’s the long answer.
It is important to approach an offer for this kind of work with a core understanding of what you mean by “work” and “free”. These definitions are entirely personal and will change as you career develops.
Seth Godin, internet god, writes generously on this topic. He makes it clear that all opportunities are not equal – he has created a sort of checklist for you to sort the good from the bad. Question each ‘free work’ opportunity that comes your way.
” 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?
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?”
So after you interrogate the opportunity you ask yourself the same question.
Should you work for free?
Yes, sometimes. But only if by “free” you mean some sort of experience or exposure that will move you forward. Otherwise, just walk away.