Working for Free

Tax Time
Credit: Flickr / Images Money

My strategy for painlessly saving a year of living costs:

  1. Have a well-paying corporate job.
  2. Live in a series of socialist countries.
  3. Neglect to file tax returns.
  4. File them all in a rush in the couple of months as you finalise your plans for leaving aforementioned corporate job.
  5. Cash the cheques as they arrive from various governments.

OK, this strategy won’t work for everyone. Or even many people. But for me, it bought me a year of no-pressure, time to make things, and space to see what evolves. Living costs covered by money paid to the government I’d never expected to see again.

When I had a corporate job, my limiting factor was time. People would ask me for things, or there would be things I wanted to do, but I would be limited by hours in the day. I felt like only about 4 hours of good mental time remained after ~50 hours of work-work. I started to make choices about using that time effectively.

Now, in theory, I have so much more time. But still the same 168 hours in the week. And one of the things I’ve had to navigate is the idea of working for free. In many ways, it’s actually the time question in a different format. If my finally-filed tax returns have bought me X weeks of freedom, then devoting some portion of time to projects eats into that time of freedom, and I have to evaluate whether it will be worthwhile.

I look for: risks worth taking, things I want to build, things I want to learn.

There are plenty of reasons why I might be happy to get a job when this time is over: working with other developers, the lure of a bigger project that needs a team, something to tie me to a place because frankly it’s very hard for me to decide where to live.

But a short while into this experiment, I realised that there was one reason that I didn’t want to be the case. It’s spending too much time working for free on other people’s projects to make my own a success.

This reframing really helped me set my priorities, and boundaries. Helped me start drawing lines between favours and “this is how I can help you, but I’ll have to charge you this much”.

Maybe as a result some people think I’m unobliging. But others have respected this response.

I tweeted recently, “In 2015 lets do more to pay people for their work. Especially women and marginalized people. It’s a feminist act.”

So here it is: in 2015 I’m not giving away the freedom I worked so hard to buy. And I’m paying it forward – I don’t expect anyone else to, either.

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