Don’t Do For Money What You Wouldn’t Do For Free

During my first real off-campus consulting job, my client asked me a simple questions, “are you enjoying working on this project?” My answer was less simple:

I wouldn’t do for money what I wouldn’t do for free.

Ever before and ever since, this principle has been my guiding principle in all that I do for money. I wouldn’t take on a project if it wasn’t interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind doing it for free. I follow this principle in my consulting work, in my employment, and in my volunteering work. But only in the latest that I actually do it for free.

This principle is about loving what you do and enjoying it beyond the material reward. It is about contributing to the project and wanting it to succeed because it is interesting and valuable, not because there is a pay cheque waiting for you. And it is about selecting projects that provide you with additional benefits and rejecting projects of limited personal and professional value.

This principle does not imply in any way that one should work on the project for free. There are enough interesting projects in the world that are also worth money. Money is an important element in our everyday life and at least some of the projects one works on must have a material payout. In that sense, this principle encourages you to seek financial return for your contributions while freeing you from limiting your contributions to the exact amount of the payment. For example, you accept a project that involves developing a software component for a client. Say you have a contract with the client to pay you $2,000 for the project based on your estimate of 20 hours of work. After working on the program for 15 hours, you realize that you will not be able to complete the project to your liking during the remaining 20 hours. At this point, you have a choice to make: contribute extra hours and complete the project even though you will not be paid for the additional hours, or do less (though still within the contract specification) so you only use up the remaining 5 hours. If you followed the principle “Don’t Do For Money What You Wouldn’t Do For Free”, then this project would bring more value to you than the monetary amount. Consequently, you would choose to put extra hours, perfect the deliverable for the client, gain the added satisfaction, and build a reputation for exceeding the requirements.

As the example above illustrates, selecting tasks that are interesting, challenging, and provide a learning experience enables you to succeed in your work. You are more likely to succeed in this case because you have more freedom within the time and budgetary constraints imposed by the client. You are more likely to succeed because your gain from project – new experience, new skill, expanded portfolio, foot-in-the-door with client, new connections, etc … – makes this project a win-win situation whether you get paid for all of your effort or not.

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