What I Learned Working for Free

Finding a job has never been easy for me.  Graduating with an Education degree at the height of the recession, I know exactly what it’s like to feel like my identity is being taken away. Instead of doing the work I love, I’m wasting my life away filling out job applications and watching daytime TV, not able to do anything else due to the dwindling balance of my bank account.  Especially as a college grad with big ambitions, unemployment means a life of neither work nor pleasure. 

This year, after returning from a year of teaching out of the country, I found myself right back where I started, except this time pursuing a career outside of education.  Though the economy has improved slightly, this year, I am facing the catch-22 of trying to gain work experience in a field where I have no experience.  Now I have entered a world full of form rejection emails and interview questions like “So, what’s the deal with your résumé?” 

One day, I came up with an idea.  I may not be able to attract many high-paying clients, but I found something I was good at, advertised on my social media channels, and offered to do it for free.  In addition to gaining some valuable experience, here are some lessons I learned while working for free. 

1.     Your skills might be more in demand than you realize.

After competing for such a limited number of jobs in my field, I was stunned by the sheer number of people who responded.  While I know the fact that people are looking for inexpensive labor isn’t exactly a groundbreaking development, it did surprise me how many people needed help but just didn’t know where to get it.  

In addition to restoring a bit of self-confidence, realizing how many people need my skills has inspired me to keep reaching out to people and providing services that are in-demand.  As a budding freelancer, it has helped so much to have people I have already worked with who are rooting for me and promoting my work as move towards turning my skills into a source of income. 

2.     No one has to give you permission to work. 

I remember how freeing it was to finally realize that my job and my identity aren’t the same thing.  I am a writer, and I am a web developer, and I am a teacher, regardless of how I actually earn a paycheck.  So, who are you, and what do you do?  The word unemployed might be your job title, but it should never be a part of your identity. 

If you really love doing something, whether its taking care of animals or fixing computers or writing or promoting content on social media, do it anyway.  Do it because it helps someone else.  Do it because you love it, and not because you get paid.  Go ahead—you don’t need an employer to give you permission. 

3.  Its okay to ask for help. 

So, I guess I still haven’t addressed the obvious problem here.  In the perfect world, we could always do what we love, and we wouldn't have to worry about paying our rent or getting health insurance or putting food on the table.  Money is not an optional commodity, and working for free isn’t a permanent solution to our problems. 

However, I’ve been realizing lately that in my quest for independence, I’ve forgotten how to ask for help.  I think we could all name someone who asks for help too much, to the point where they are a burden on friends and family members.  However, the act of asking for temporary financial help doesn’t make you a burden.  It doesn’t mean you have failed. It’s hard, but sometimes it’s exactly what we need. 

It’s so important to realize that our personal and professional value isn’t contingent on how much money we are making.  I am discovering this every day, as I keep trying to move towards financial stability, though the journey has been much longer and harder than I had hoped.  Working for free might be a tiny step, but maybe its the way forward.