Doing It For Free


“If they didn’t pay me, I’d do this for free.” – Harry Cabluck

Have you ever had a job in your life where you felt like that? Have you ever invested your time and energy into a career where you literally couldn’t wait to get up in the morning?

Few people have that opportunity. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had more than one.

Many people get exposed to a job early in life and do some variation of that same job the rest of their lives, especially in the trades. Others pick a college major at age 18 or 19 for reasons that often have little to do with their interests, skills or abilities and more to do with factors related to friends or romantic pursuits. They end up with a degree unrelated to their interests or stuck in that career track for the rest of their lives. Others, especially in times like these, take any job that’s available, and as long as the paychecks clear the bank, they stick to it. Others get on a job or career track they don’t intend to pursue for a lifetime but are subsequently locked in by responsibilities such as loans, marriage, mortgages, and children.

In all these cases, it is not unusual for people to wake up one day and realize they are unhappy in their jobs and careers, but feel trapped there due to age, education or skills, unable to seek any alternatives because the barriers to change are too high.

Harry Cabluck was fortunate to discover photography as a young boy, introduced via his uncle’s darkroom, just as I was. Harry will be 72 in March, 2010 and is still going strong, still enjoying every day that he gets to do what he enjoys most: making pictures. Very few people discover what they were put on this earth to do in sixth grade like Harry did. Many people wake up most mornings dreading what they have to spend that day doing; they spend their days, weeks and years just grinding it out.

That daily grind takes a toll. It grinds down your spirit, your intellect, your dreams, your personality, your energy and your relationships. Often too late you realize that the ablative material of that transaction is your soul. Often too late you look into the mirror and don’t recognize who is looking back.

Those who do often ask the mirror, “What happened to those dreams? What happened to those ideals? What happened to that energy? What happened to that lust for life?”

That’s where I sometimes enter the picture. The primary professional things I’ve continued to actively do during my sabbatical have been life and entrepreneurial coaching. During my sabbatical years, I’ve spent a lot of time with people who are adrift in their lives or are searching for which entrepreneurial dream to pursue and how to pursue it.

For both groups one of my initial questions is usually, “What would you be doing with your life if you didn’t need money?” For many, that is a question they have never seriously considered. It is a tougher question than most people think. It’s tougher because I relate to them the lessons from my friends who have achieved financial independence and still woken up with the same questions my clients have: “What am I doing? What is the purpose in this?”. The people doing the searching then often realize that money, in and of itself, is not the answer. For people who choose to be productive, there is usually a finite limit to the number of days they can spend lounging on a beach or twiddling their thumbs admiring an alpine view.

The question, “What would you be doing with your life if you didn’t need money?” is an open door to finding your equivalent to Harry Cabluck’s photography, something you’d do for free, even if they didn’t pay you.

The challenge is that the answer to that question is, unless you are a rare specimen such as Harry, not a lifetime answer. Life is comprised of chapters, and people usually have a different answer to that question during different chapters. People who lack the ability to give themselves permission to change and attempt to lock themselves into that answer for a lifetime often end up in the same place as before: unhappy. Your life and your interests, desires and needs will change with every chapter, so it’s important to realize that the answer you give to that question today may not be the same answer you’d give in the next chapter of your life.

As an illustration, think about what your answer would have been or might be at ages 18, 24, 28, 35, 42, 50, 60 and 70. Each of those life chapters would probably yield a different answer. At a minimum, you’ll probably have three or four different answers.

For many people, their life circumstances in any of their life chapters precludes them doing what they’d do if they didn’t need money. In that case, it is critically important to include elements of what you’d like to do in the life you have. For instance, you may answer that if you didn’t need money, you’d be a painter of abstract art. However, you’ve got student loans, a mortgage, two car payments, taxes, homeowner’s association dues, a cable bill, an even bigger mobile phone bill, two kids and another on the way. And, you’re an accountant.

The delta between your life reality and what you’d like to do if you didn’t need money can be a constant irritant, and if left unaddressed is likely to degrade your professional and personal life. In this example, it would be good to get a membership at your local art museum, or if you don’t have one, plan an annual pilgrimage to one. Take an evening course in art or art history at your local community college. Participate in online communities related to abstract art. It is critical to feed the need of your true interests and passions.

The rule is: Allocate and invest energy into your true passion or you will suffer two tragic fates—your passion will wither and your spirit will wither with it.

For people choosing new directions for their career, either voluntarily or due to layoffs (RIFs, redundancies), it is important to revisit the answer to the question as you plot your next job or career. If you consciously put yourself into a job or career that does not align with your answer to the question, you will build resentments that will either consume you, your career or those around you (often those you love most) or all three. The reason this happens is that you are spending most of your life investing time and energy into something that is not aligned with or advancing your life priorities.

To avoid that fate, start with a list of your life priorities. This list is not about work, work skills or work activities. It is a list of what you consider most important in your life, such as honesty, integrity, marriage, family, friends, health, freedom, control of destiny, challenge, growth, fulfillment, meaningfulness, creative outlet, financial reward, intrinsic reward, travel, etc. 

Once you’ve got the list, apply a weighting of importance to each priority on the list. For instance, if you feel that being challenged is the most important thing, give that a ten. If travel is half as important as challenge, then give that a five, if health is also half as important as challenge, give that a 5 as well, and so on.

Next, rate each of your job or career opportunities in each of your priority categories. For instance, if you are considering a high tech startup, then rate each one of your priorities in that scenario. For a high tech startup, travel will often be high, so that may rate a seven; growth and challenge would also be high, so they may rate a seven or eight; and the required commitment and long hours of a high tech startup means that marriage, family and friends typically suffer, so they would likely rate a two or three.

After you build out a grid of each opportunity against each of your weighted priorities, you can easily rank those opportunities based on your life priorities. What you find may surprise you as jobs or careers that you wouldn’t think would be right for you rise to the top. For instance, you may consider yourself best suited for a jet-set, high technology startup, but you find that opportunity is diametrically opposed to your life priorities of marriage, family, friends, community involvement and health. Instead, your ranked opportunity list may show that running a local ice cream truck or working in a hardware store fits your priorities best. These results can be surprising and troubling, but they are very rarely wrong when it comes to identifying the opportunity that best aligns with what your priorities are during this chapter of your life.

The point of either scenario, maintaining an element in your life of what you’d do if you didn’t need money or pursuing a job or career that matches your priorities during this chapter of your life, is to move you closer to being like Harry, being someone who can truthfully say “If they didn’t pay me, I’d do this for free.”

For many people, the secret to happiness is closing the gap between where you are now and where you’d be if you were doing it for free.


6 thoughts on “Doing It For Free

  1. Steph

    I, too, have been fortunate in finding a passion, not just once, but twice, and getting paid to pursue it. As we are now undertaking this exercise, I appreciate being reminded of all that I have done in the past that was not really “intentional,” but rather just a way to pay the bills. After all, history repeats itself if we are not paying attention!

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that most people spend most of their waking hours working, so it’s important to find something you feel passionate about, or at least that doesn’t grind you down.

    Wishing everyone a chance to pursue their passion(s), whether it be a career or simply a hobby.


  2. Skip Mascorro

    I can be counted as one of the fortunate who have a career that is extremely satisfying and enjoyable. But there are still challenges among them, of course, making a living. And adjusting living standards to accommodate the path of the career is sometimes necessary. But if I can draw on my personal experience as an example, worth it for the gains in quality of life that my career has so generously afforded me. Thanks Doug for the reminder of just how fortunate we are.
    A great 2010 to you, Steph and family.

  3. Floyd

    Within the last ten years of my thirty-plus year career arc, I became disenchanted with the business that sprung up around doing what I loved. I felt “over it”, dissatisfied with the responsibilities, and wanted out.

    To gain some altitude I worked with a coach and went to grad school, coming away with a new appreciation for the gift of my business and clients. I now believe my occupation does not have to be my calling, especially if it acts as a funding vehicle for the “life outside work” that I want to live.

    I know it’s cliche, but I really used to live for work. Today it is a lot easier to embrace the work (and clients) as a way to create the life I desire for me and my family.

  4. JImmy Sones

    Work at what you like to do. The daily grind turns out to be a bitter pill, a waste of your short days of life if you CHOOSE to continue doing something you have begun to hate. If you cannot make ends meet working at something enjoyable, do what you must until you figure out how to make ends meet doing what you like.
    Sometimes working at what you are passionate about can turn into a nightmare at worst….. in normal situations you can maintain an even strain financially. At best you would LIVE IT UP like Doug and Steph……..:)
    If all turns out poorly work the 9 cent retiremant plan.

  5. Adam hackney

    I have worked some jobs I have tolerated such as doing the dishes and cooking. Some jobs I flat out hated, Collections. Currently I really like my job which I feel is a blessing. At times of course it is aggrivating but otherwise 90% of the time or more I like getting up and going to work, doing the job I have. In the end I think it’s because I get to work with technology and I get to help people by fixing things.

    Few things are better then getting cartoons back on for the kids or the internet for a parent hoping to talk to thier kids in college. Things could always be worse, for sure right there.

  6. Rene

    Doug, I love this post, thank you.

    Our first business made us happy because we were self-employed and sustainable. But we grew to hate the work.

    Then we went on sabbatical, and through a mixed blessing of our dog getting bone cancer, we truly found what we love do to; building up our three legged dog site, Tripawds. Go figure!

    We have been working at Tripawds without any pay for the last 2.5 years. It’s been the most gratifying work we’ve ever done!

    Lucky for us we’ve been able to live off savings during this sabbatical. But now, we’re running out of money and we face the challenge of doing what we love while finding a way make a living from it. I hope we can make the two meet without endangering our love and passion for this community we’ve created.

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