If You Wouldn't Do Your Job For Free, Then Quit

"If you wouldn't do you job for free, then quit." If you haven't heard this before, you've probably heard similar advice, and while on the face it seems awfully extreme, entrepreneur David Fuhriman explains how following it helped him turn his career in the right direction.

Photo remixed from Benjamin Ragheb

On May 12, 2009, I read a list of advice my brother-in-law received during graduation from Yale Law:

  • An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two, and an hour of work before noon is worth two.
  • Always pick your kids up from school. That's when they want to talk.
  • Never let your skill exceed your virtue.
  • Never take less than two weeks off when you have a child or for your honeymoon. Don't let them talk you down.
  • When you mess up, admit it frankly and quickly, and move on.
  • Always do your very best in your job, but if you don't like what you're doing enough that you would do it for free, quit. (This seems extreme, but at the same time mentally liberating.)

This last one hit me like a bolt of lightning. Of course I had heard similar advice, like do what you love and you would never work a day in your life. But this one was different. Would I do it for free? That is a pretty high standard. I enjoyed the job I had. Everything has ups and downs, but generally is was OK. I was doing work that I enjoyed. I was working with technology and finance/accounting — it provided enough of a challenge and the company was growing well. But I knew that I wouldn't do it for FREE.

What did I love enough that I would do it for free? I figured that if I was actually willing to do it for free, then that would be a good start. So I explored taking the CFA or CAIA certifications — maybe I would like to do more security analysis. No. I started looking into commodities and opened up a margin account, funded it with some money. But that wasn't it. Did some real estate analysis, properties in the mid-west have attractive cap-rates. No.

I ended up coming back to what I used to do: helping small companies grow. This time I wanted to grow something scalable — with national or international scope. I started attending tech events, reading everything online, buying books, and discovered something I love doing for free — and what I do really well. I am very good at working in the space between technology and business. I ended up quitting my job to work on these things full-time. I discovered there are two reasons to only work in a job that you would do for free.

Personal Satisfaction

This is the thing that most people kind of intuitively understand. Maybe it is because we have all had some days, or weeks, or years... where we HATE waking up and going into the job. Where many of us trip up is trying to identify what gives us enough satisfaction that we would do it for free. Most people I talk to think that this means that they should work in video games, sports or some other recreational activity that they enjoy. This perspective blocks one's ability to actually discover what they love.

The process I recommend to discover what you would do for free is to discover what you loved doing when you were 12. Why? There is something a little innocent about that age where we are developing our own personality and growing up but not old enough to get distracted by things such as making more money, working in a prestigious career etc... In the words of the Black Eye Peas:

I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder As I'm gettin' older, y'all, people gets colder Most of us only care about money makin' Selfishness got us followin' our wrong direction

So what did I love doing when I was 12? Playing soccer. But as I explored what it was that I loved about soccer, I loved being the best player on the team. I loved leading the team. I loved playing creatively, doing the unexpected. I loved quickly finding solutions to problems on the field and planning tactics before the game to get an advantage. I loved practice and constantly improving. Now I do the same things that I loved when I was 12 — but I do them with tech companies.

Mastery

We should only work in something that we would do for free because only then we will have the intrinsic motivation to attempt to achieve mastery — or getting better and better at something that matters. Mastery is something that I found in my process of discovery. Books such as "Drive" by Daniel Pink and "Delivering Happiness" helped me understand that when we are really focused on becoming a expert at something that matters, we cease trying to accomplish things because of the external motivations. For example, when I was in college I had to take a Geology class. I didn't care about geology and I took the class just for a grade. I don't remember much from that class. I enjoyed Economics though and I earned a minor in Economics because I enjoyed the theory and enjoyed learning. I never had to worry about getting an A in Economics, because I was mastering the material.

But mastery does not refer to perfect execution and knowledge. As Pink says in his book, "the mastery asymptote is a source of frustration. Why reach for something you can never fully attain? But it's also a source of allure. Why not reach for it? The joy is in the pursuit more than the realisation. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes." I believe that we can only pursue mastery of things that we do based on internal motivation. Not if you are there to collect a pay cheque.

So how about you? What would you do for free? Well you must find out what it is and quit your job so you can do it. You will enjoy your work much more and will become an expert in your field.

If you wouldn't do your job for FREE, then QUIT. [BernMedical]

David Fuhriman lives in San Diego and currently works full time on Bern Medical, a start-up that helps physicians find missed billings. He also has co-founded 5000Hands.com and CloudGirlfriend.com.


Comments

    "If You Wouldn’t Do Your Job For Free, Then Quit"
    Sure cos I can afford to jump from job to job, looking for the one that fit's just right! Don't worry a bout the wife and kids they're OK with it! Bloody hell which planet are living on! #[

    I think that advice being given to a Yale grad would suggest a certain age bracket where that advice might be possible.
    Definitely as we go along, we take on more responsibilities that don't lend themselves well to taking risks like that.

    Yep. Agree with the article.
    Maybe not quit your job because of responsibilities and dependants, but coming to the realisation of "Yeah, Id do this for free" is a huge indication of whether you are doing what you want to be doing or getting enough satisfaction.

    If you hate your job, or wouldnt do it for free, then you are going to be living a pretty miserable life.

    Just yesterday I had a staff member ask me "What do you do outside of work? You have any hobbies or anything?
    I had to really think about it. Beyond wife/kids/family/friends, no, not really.
    My job is my work is my hobby. I love what I do. I dont need to switch off from it.

      "...If you hate your job, or wouldnt do it for free, then you are going to be living a pretty miserable life..."

      I disagree. My job is just what I do to earn a living. I don't define who I am by what I do for a living, and my satisfaction gained from employment isn't pride in what I do, but the fact that it's a means for providing for my family.

      I'm in a similar boat to you - outside of work, my time is almost completely spent with my family, but I see that as being far more defining than what I do.

    Yeh, right! It's fine for some rich guy to make these assertions. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we have to live in the real world. I wouldn't be working at all if I could afford to make these kinds of decisions. I'd be spending my life travelling and studying instead. The reality is, however, that people have to support families, pay off mortgages and generally have to struggle to make ends meet, and so we often have to take whatever work we can get. I wouldn't be listening too closely to this advice from someone so clearly out of touch of the problems of working people.

      Only because you were stupid enough to get sucked into a mortgage, idiot.

    Serious reality check needed here. I sense someone going through a mid life crisis. Just get yourself an Amiga 1200, do a little work-life balance, come back and see me in a month.

    wow I cant think of a single job i would do for free. I doubt many would clean up shit, work with violent criminals, teach ratty teenagers who dont want to learn and pull knives on you for free, but for good money we do that and do it well like professionals.
    Perhaps having a professional passion for your job beyond "just for money" is the key here....

    I think the harsh responses here are more a result of denial than anything else. It's quite a terrifying thought, and moreso when you have dependents who rely on you financially - It is a much easier thing to pursue when younger/starting out, but regardless is hard to pursue;

    I think this divides people into two camps: those that still have that vision/determination, and those that have "made do" and "settled" with what they could find at the time. Steve Jobs from Apple gave this advice: "Dont Settle".

    If everyone pursued this ideal, society would probably not work, but for those with enough will and determination, and ready to put the effort in, this is sound advice.

    Aren't we all just a bitter bunch then?

    The article is about your state of mind, and achieving dreams.

    clint, did you stop and think maybe there are people who WOULD work with violent criminals for free (and people who do, they're called 'volunteers') because it's important to them to make a difference?

    At no point in the article is it suggesting that you actually work for free. I think maybe you all need to read it a little more carefully or not at all.

      We are all living in a world where niceties like choosing the perfect job is a hap-instance, not a privilege! Whilst it would be nice to be able to do what the author says, reality dictates that very few people will be lucky enough to get their dream job. Frankly, someone telling people to dump their job if they're not happy is like saying your family and obligations come second to your own happiness. Pie in the sky really... Well that's my take on it anyway! #]

    Actually, this article really speaks to me. With all three jobs I currently do, I would gladly do them for free (and in fact, due to their casual basis' I've sometimes not said anything when a payment or timesheet never processed).

    I'm running a film festival which lets me get to mentor and assist 12 directors produce some amazing content. I'd do it for free.

    I'm an I.T. Officer at my college, but last year when I got here, I was fixing computers and helping out people for free so much, the I.T. Officers at the time got angry that they couldn't get any work because I was doing it for free.

    I write for the student newspaper, but I get to interview amazing people and attend events for free. Next year I'm running for the editor-in-chief (a paid position), but currently I DO do it for free. And still will next year if I don't get the role.

      This is a great example of what the article was hinting at. Obviously you can't work for free and not earn money, but if you can find the job that you would do for free (enjoyment of work over money, yet still get paid for) then you've hit the nail on the head.

      Balancing this with providing for a family is the key. If you truly want it, you'll find a way.

    My Philosophy is "Everyone hates their job, that's why you have to be paid to do it. The trick is to find one that you hate less or gets you paid more."

    I think this is great advice, though it might make more sense to a younger person. I'm 23 and am trying to find my direction in life. I also think it helps to think "can I picture my self doing this for the rest of my life?".

    I enjoy the work I do, but have other things that I'd rather do with my time. This advice fails the common sense test.

    Wow.. Why would anyone choose to spend 1/3 of their day doing something they didn't enjoy? Good article!

    Wow, I cant believe some of the comments here.
    "Everyone hates their job." "A job is just a means to pay for the rest of my life." and such and such.

    People work for half of their waking life, youre mad if you dont find something you enjoy.
    Sure, you have to start of with shit jobs, build experience, discover what you like doing before you can move into something you find fulfilling.
    And its not just the job. Its where you work, the people you work with. Its when it all comes together.

    Maybe, instead of asking if you would do your job for free (because some people here cant grasp the concept of what the article is about) you should look at it differently. . .
    For the past seven years I have loved what I do. Ive been saying to myself "I cant believe I get paid to do this."
    If you can honestly say that to yourself then youre on the right track.

    I enjoy telling clueless columnists that their advice is out of touch with reality.

    Who's gonna pay me to do it?

    This advice is great for people my age (23) but as some of the other commentators have stated, the older you get, the more responsibilities you take on and it makes it harder, i however have found what i love to do and am glad i get paid to do it otherwise i would be happy but very poor

      There are at least two opportunities for this "luxury" - when your young and able to be "free" and when your older when you can still work but are able to pick and chose what it is you want to do when money is not the key driver.

    I just think there are a whole lot of miserable buggers on here that should look around. If you hate your job THAT much, there is probably something you could do you'd hate less.

    I really enjoyed this thought provoking post.

    Like many posters here, I'm in no position to realistically consider quitting my well paid job simply because I dislike it.

    So I turned the question around, and asked myself: "If I win the lottery, would I be in the office tomorrow?".

    Answer? Hell no. Since I can name a few jobs I definitely would for free if I had the means, AND in fact also pay well, I'm starting to wonder why I am not taking steps towards that goal.

    All food for thought.

    Think some of the comments are harsh - but understand it. Reflecting back on my 30yr career I wish I had thought about this approach a bit earlier. Sure I struggled to raise 4 kids and pay for university education but did invest enough in myself to be able at 53 to say "enough" and am now doing work that I would do for free (and earning enough to live). Key is ENOUGH - think there is a lot of issues around for what is ENOUGH. However, do understand for a lot of us it is not easy to "do what we want". But... a lot of good points in the post - thank you.

    A bit late in the game but, like others, I am struck by the polarity of the viewpoints. I have often wondered about the realistic-ness of these types of blogs/posts etc .. and having once lost everything - literally everything when I became ill, I know only too well that there are very real risks. But, we only have one life, a finite amount of hours on this planet, if I risk it and lose then the worst case is that my kids don't get a house when I die (that's actually not all that likely anyhow as things stand), I work in a reasonably well-paying job which I might love - except I am typecast into one aspect of it and have realised that they are never going to give me a go (although they continue to dangle the carrot). I have a small lump sum which is enough for me to take a year, finish my PhD & explore some other options - do I sit on my nest egg & slowly die at work (work does define your life - if you hate it) .. or do I go for it (I earned that nest egg after all)?

    I watched Steve Jobs 2005 speech at a stanford graduation yesterday and one thing struck me ... you can't connect the dots in advance, only when you look back. What if, in refusing to take risk, we miss the chance of living a great life?

    I think we all can learn something from these comments: find what you love first and just then get married and have children. It makes everything less complicated... but its never too late anyway. :)

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