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Why I Work for Free (Sometimes)

Hi everyone, to continue my conversation about the hustle culture I actually want to bring up something slightly controversial - working for free. I ask that you keep an open mind and read through this blog before leaving any comments on my relatively hot take.

I had a discussion about hobbies and jobs. Tak made the realization that once you turn your hobby into a job, you're in a danger zone. Not per se for your financial freedom, but for the initial excitement of your hobby. For instance, he wanted to become a novelist. Now, being a full-time writer for reports, papers, and proposals, the aim is efficiency. He had to use tools such as DeepL, Grammarly, and Quillbot, to soldier through deadlines. In the end, he sort of lost his creative liberty. Not to say that using the tools isn't a talent in itself, but the childlikeness and enthusiasm for writing kind of disappeared.

To illustrate my experience, I’d like to share a perspective on my pursuits in dance.

I started teaching dance last year, starting in August 2021. Before then, dance was purely something I do at any time because I liked it. Teaching was officially my first ever paid job for dance. Since then, I felt like I got opportunities to do dance gigs, shows, or commercials that are paid. I realized that when money is involved, my motivation to finish the task or in this case to create choreography became extrinsic. This means I am so focused on the output (money) more than the process. At some point, I felt like it was more enjoyable to pay for classes as opposed to earning money from teaching them.

It appears that when you are a professional, you are not hired to have fun, you are paid to get the job done. Unless…?

Fortunately, there are many exceptions. The key is to only take projects that stimulate you. You will never write a research paper way outside of your expertise. I will never take dance gigs that I have zero interest in. But there will be that thin line, where you take something because you feel like it's worth it. For the cash, for the exposure? You will never know that it is worth it until you finish it. And sometimes, the cash or the exposure still doesn't feel like it did justice to your skillset.

Then comes the unpaid gigs or sometimes my friends call them "thank you projects". This involves a similar amount of hard work, but without any money involved. Who in the right mind would allocate time for these gigs? In a world where we all struggle to earn, why spend our energy and expertise on something cashless.

If the only struggle you have is earning money then you will eventually struggle in earning money happily. Many studies have shown that once people reach certain goals, they actually dip. And if your focus is on earning more from each job, eventually you lose some intrinsic motivation. Unless you are really happy with the gig, which is the best-case scenario. But they don't really fall from the sky that often, or do they?

So the unpaid things are these grey areas that confuse the world. When you turn down your ego, some of these horrific time-consuming cashless gigs are actually wonders.

Not to say exploitation is a good thing, that's a different story. So here are some cases that I think are important.

1. Artist-to-artist collaboration

If you just entered an industry trying to propose your 'new' craft to the world, you'll quickly realize everyone is turning against you. The world is not so welcoming of the new. Whether you are making your own fashion brand or starting out a dance company, you need to start somewhere. In my early career of dancing for commercials, I heavily distinguish two types of projects: 1) established companies trying to make bank with talent, 2) friends wanting to create an artistic project together.

Context is important, if a big company reaches out to me and asks me to create choreography for their commercial, an invoice will be on its way. But if a friend, or even acquaintance with the same artistic vision, taps my shoulder to create something that I intrinsically love, I will not invoice it. Because collaboration and passion aren't transactional. In fact, it is invaluable. If anything, I'm ready to pull money out of my pocket just to make it happen.

Here is an example of a project where I do give my time and money for something I believe in. An artwork made by us together, for the world. Videos for the sake of sharing, you can watch here

I remembered we had to pay IDR 700,000 just to turn on the stadium lights, on top of renting the space. Art like this took time from the six of us, also in renting the studio space for practice.

2. Internships

Although unpaid internships are getting banned for treating fresh graduates as coffee makers, there are internships that offer no other education like conventional schools. When I entered I felt like I was in university for free. I learn how to write proposals to get funding, contribute to policy, help farmers, and meet people in the energy field, whereas universities cannot even provide that. In this mindset, you can immediately call universities a scam for taking so much money and causing so much stress. The same way I see dance collaborations where choreographers teach me their moves for videos. I feel like I'm taking masterclasses for free by being one of their dancers. It is sometimes an honor to be trusted by an expert.

This post may very well be controversial as some people may misinterpret this as an opportunity to take advantage of skillful talents. But the lesson is actually as follows:

if you're in the middle of your career feeling stuck and extrinsically motivated, maybe it’s time to look back at your humble beginnings and treat any stimulating opportunities based on how much it excites you versus how much money it pays.

Of course, this is all easier said than done, the world isn't always roses and honey. But in times when repetition and automated behavior takes over our creative minds, why not get a breath of fresh air by experiencing something without measuring its monetary value?

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this. Have your hobbies ever turned into jobs? if so, have you noticed how it changes your outlook and behavior around it?

Let me know in the comments below!

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