The Long-Term Benefit of Working for Free
Article by Tom Bilyeu
If you’re serious about making money, go work for free.
This isn’t a joke. Prioritizing a paycheck is very short-term thinking. Think about it: If you play everything perfectly and stumble into a job that pays a fortune, what are you really going to make? If you’re lucky, $100,000 — maybe. In fact, if your first job pays $100,000, you’re about as rare as an ice-cream-secreting unicorn.
Even if you command that kind of money out of the gate, you’re still committing financial suicide if you prioritize money over experience. If you can get both, awesome — you’ve won the lottery. But most people at the beginning of their professional lives will have choices like this:
Option A: Take a job that pays a person with my experience the maximum amount of money. There’s a catch here: Your employer is paying top-shelf dollars and thus expects top-shelf results. This means you’ve got to deliver from day one. You don’t have room to take a lot of risks or take on tasks outside your core responsibilities. You’ll be paid well, but you’ll be wearing golden handcuffs.
Option B: Take a job that pays below market, or if you’re really smart, pays nothing at all. The reason I say the smart person chooses nothing at all is that in most internships, the understanding is you’re paid in knowledge, access, and opportunity. When you’re getting paid, the understanding is you’re going to earn your keep. Even when you earn a relatively small amount, you are classified differently in people’s minds.
Let’s compare the types of payments:
Cash: Cash buys things. That’s rad. It’s a heck of a lot easier to eat when you’ve got cash to spend. But that’s it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Money is great if invested, but at the beginning of your career, you probably won’t be making enough to invest a meaningful amount. If we’re being honest, your paycheck will go to things like food, rent, and entertainment.
Knowledge, Access, and Opportunity: None of the above can be deposited into the bank (yet), but all of them are yours to keep. Instead of turning your time into money, you’re turning your time into an investment in yourself.
Employers pay for results. Results come from knowledge. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, whom you know is as important as what you know. When you’re working for free, you’ll be shocked by all the people willing to give you their time. Once you’re around important people, you’ll be able to turn that access into opportunity by taking on responsibilities that allow you to blow them away.
The hard truth is that you still have to be awesome. That’s the only way to make this strategy work. If you don’t dazzle, you’ll be forgotten. But even in option A, if you don’t dazzle, you’re ultimately racing to the middle.
Knowledge, access, and opportunity are the gifts that create long-term financial returns. For that reason alone, you’re better off trading your time for knowledge and connections. Live with your parents, sleep on a couch, or sleep in your car if you have to. If you’re an unstoppable beast who is serious about success at the highest level, it’s a very small price to pay. If you want to retire as a middle manager with a gold watch to show for your efforts, by all means, choose option A.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com and in the March 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Tom Bilyeu is the cofounder of 2014 Inc. 500 company Quest Nutrition — a unicorn startup valued at more than $1 billion — and the cofounder and host of Impact Theory. Tom’s mission is the creation of empowering media-based IP and the acceleration of mission-based businesses. Personally driven to help people develop the skills they will need to improve themselves and the world, Tom intends to use commerce to address the dual pandemics of physical and mental malnourishment.
Tom regularly inspires audiences of entrepreneurs, change-makers, and thought leaders at some of the most prestigious conferences and seminars around the world, including Abundance 360, A-fest, and Freedom Fast Lane. Tom has also been a guest on The Tony Robbins Podcast and The School of Greatness podcast, and he has been featured in Forbes, Inc., SUCCESS, and The Huffington Post. Tom is currently on the Innovation Board of the XPRIZE Foundation.