I’ve always worked in the communications field, but only since I’ve worked for myself do I find that people ask me to do for free the same work I earn a living from. And I’ve discovered that this is not unusual.
A communicator spent hours on a document design and people asked offhandedly if they could “just copy her template.” A photographer got asked if he could go somewhere “and just take some pictures.” A baker often gets asked if she can “just bring something.” Another creative found her design casually plagiarized by one of the biggest names in the industry. These are just a few recent stories from friends and family that I can think of off the top of my head.
What is it about this casual devaluing of work? Where does it come from? How is it justified?
Of course it’s not limited to creative work. I’m sure accountants get asked to do taxes for their friends, and contractors get asked to do home-improvement projects. But it seems especially prevalent with creatives.
Nor is this a thing that only happens because of Bad People. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and felt incredibly rotten when I realized I’d done it. (But have probably also done it and not realized.)
I think there are two reasons it happens.
First, some work seems fun. So it feels less rude to ask someone to do something fun, than it would to ask for something that seemed “like work.”
Creative work does seem fun. It often is. But it is still work. It is not done by rubbing a lamp or wiggling your nose. It takes time and effort. And the thing is – you might think this is obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be – time doing free work is time you are not making money. I didn’t go to business school, but I’ve finally learned the concept of opportunity cost.
The second reason work is often devalued is that free work is easy to find now. A quick search will make it seem like you can get anything free. You can find anything on Pinterest, right? And in many cases, you can. Sort of.
Here’s the thing. Quality costs. Whether you pay for work, subscribe for it, or submit to advertisers – that’s up to you. But what you get without one of those transactions is, by actual definition, without worth.
This is not to denigrate doing what you do without a buyer. Work can be done to build a brand. Work can be done simply for the joy of it. That is, after all, exactly what you’re reading here. Free work has an important purpose. But free work is chosen. It’s not ordered. And it’s done on the edges, when there’s extra time. It’s not done instead of paying the bills.
This is also not to denigrate favors, barters, and just plain gifts. Collaboration and bartering are increasingly important, and our tribes matter. Being able to help people is a phenomenal thing.
It’s the thoughtlessness of soliciting free work, and the seemingly increasing pervasiveness of it – that’s what I take issue with.
Work is… work. Work requires… work.
So, by all means, work for the people you care about. Work for the sheer enjoyment of it. Work because it builds your reputation. And work because it pays the bills.
But if you find yourself doing work because someone mistook you for a genie… remember that nobody will value what you do unless you do first. It is one of the hardest things you can do in life, I think. But perhaps one of the most important.