150 When working for free makes sense


career design

Why working for free during an internship makes sense

When you're paid you're expected to deliver against that pay. This makes a certain grade of mistakes–the most meaningful kind–out of bounds. They are too costly for you to make. You cannot afford them. So you color within the lines, well within.

“When in doubt, play your shots” is a piece of writing advice attributed to Tim de Lisle who was editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Alamanack at the turn of the century. de Lisle’s advice captures the heart of learning what not to do by doing more, not less. How do you do things with exuberance, with almost a certain disregard for consequences? Lower the stakes. Take up the apprenticeship, drop the pay.

Because as soon as you're paid to score, it gets harder. It’s natural to develop caution to counter doubt. Caution kills exuberance, slows down exploration, slows down learning.

But say you work for free. You're doing your boss a favor that your boss–hopefully you've chosen someone who has skills you want to acquire–will repay, in whatever measure, in the next available currency: the currency of mentorship. When you’re a greenhorn, optimizing for status and comfort over access to knowledge and people is penny wise pound foolish.

Yet, some will say: free labor is a less-than-ideal internship. To them I ask, what do you think is the point of an internship? If it is not apprenticeship, there's no beef. You and I are talking about chalk and cheese.

But if it is learning…

… then by valuing learning and skill-building, you are laying the foundation for mastery. True mastery, eventually, is a magnet for money and power.

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