Free: The Fastest Way to Finance Your Future.

This post is one in a series entitled “Conventional Confusion.” A lot of money is made each year by exploiting those who know no better, who are ignorant, uninformed, or just too fearful to try anything that might land outside the label of “conventional wisdom”—something based on or in accordance with what is generally done or believed. The problem with a lot of conventional wisdom is that, oftentimes, it's not true and seldom serves or lives up to the satisfaction all of us are looking for. This post is based off of a recent conversation I had with a new college grad and aspiring artist.

Here’s one of the biggest secrets I've learned while consulting for hundreds of businesses, and starting more than 30 of my own, over the last 20 years: Contrary to conventional wisdom, “free” is the fastest way to finance your future.

The other day, I met with an aspiring artist and recent college graduate to discuss how things are going with their work at the farm-to-table restaurant, Table 33, a friend and I started a few years ago in Dayton, OH. This is a responsible, caring person that often puts others needs before her own, so in a lot of ways she’s already winning. When asked how are things going, she responded positively, but expressed the need to get a job that pays more than what she is making at the restaurant.

Her comment caught my attention. It’s a perfect example of the conventional wisdom that, if believed, might leave my friend disappointed—and making less money—in the end.

She went on to explain that she still lives at home and her mom helps with her car payment. She, however, wants to be more responsible, and understandably so. In order to do so, she needs to make more money. This is something I completely understand. For the majority of my life, I’ve experienced the same feelings while in similar situations.

Competence is much more important than compensation. Competence creates influence and influence creates opportunities for better compensation. This is the way you have to think! Especially at the point in life this young woman is in.


Working with a lot of young creative professionals, and having been one myself, I know how tempting it can be to want to get paid what you think you’re worth versus waiting and taking less money, or even working for FREE, in order to make more in the future. If you can find the right person or place with the experience and results you’re looking for, then working for free, or less than you deserve, is how you can finance an experience your present experience could not get you otherwise.

Just today, thousands of people in various age brackets from all over the world left better paying jobs in order to work for free, for individuals or organizations that weren’t hiring but were willing to share the reputation, insight, and experience that took them 15, 25, or even 50 years to obtain.

Consider all of the coaches in the NFL who have come from Bill Walsh. Because he was a winner, coaches and potential coaches from all over the world wanted to work for him for free, volunteering their time while knowing their investment, if they worked hard and had the talent, would pay dividends for the rest of their life.

It was late on a Saturday evening when I walked into Table 33. Almost everyone had gone home when I noticed one of our younger managers polishing and putting the last few wine glasses away. Knowing they were not getting paid as much as I or they would like, I asked if they were on the clock. They said no.

ME: Does that mean you’re working for free?

THEM: I guess.

ME: Nope, you’re not. You’re actually investing in your future right now.

THEM: What do you mean?

ME: You’re not working for free because you’re building and growing your equity. Maybe it’s equity in this place or maybe just the equity in a greater competence that will lead to more influence, which leads to greater compensation over time.

This is the same response I, myself, received over a decade ago from a well-known author when I asked him how to get close enough to work with the experts in any given field:

“Identify who you want to learn from, then go and find a way to make their life better. Volunteer your time—work for free if you have to.”

I’ve learned over and over again that if you want to make more money, you have to learn how to make a positive difference in more people’s lives. Possessing the skills or insight that enable us to make a bigger impact on more people is the fastest way to the greatest levels of compensation. Learning how to make a difference, not dollars, is what’s difficult and what requires we go and learn from those who’ve already done it.

Like me, and thousands of others, you just might have to work for free in order to get into the right environment where the right people with the right resources are willing to take a shot on you. People who’ve been there themselves will recognize your interest in investing in your future versus a pre-occupation with getting paid.

What if you can’t leave your job because you have too many bills or too much debt? Don’t worry. Start small. Consider working for an individual or organization for “free” one day a week or maybe just on the weekends. It would not be unusual for anyone to have one job that pays their bills while having another job that finances their future.

This “free” approach should not be limited to the processing of an occupation. It works with almost anything. Want to learn how to be a better basketball player? Go find a player better than yourself and figure out how to make their life better. In exchange I’m sure they’ll be willing to share some of their (basketball) secrets with you. Same could be said for potential accountants, cooks, husbands and mothers.

Take it to the bank! Free is not free—it’s the fastest way to finance your future.