Working for Free: Do What You Love

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

On my way back to the RV from the campground bathhouse, I found two of my kids and my husband chatting with a woman who was out walking her dogs. My husband introduced her as the campground host. She and her husband get to stay in one of Florida’s most beautiful state park campgrounds four months out of the year in exchange for about 20 volunteer work hours per week. Her husband does handyman projects—right now, he’s making heavy covers for the trash containers to keep out the raccoons. She gives naturalist talks.

“You’re a naturalist?”

She nodded.

“Shoot. I don’t have anything to offer the park,” I said, “though I wanted to be a naturalist when I was kid.”


“Yes, until my parents took me to visit a naturalist at a local state park and in her office I saw a frog floating in formaldehyde and knew I couldn’t do it if I had to look at that floating frog all day.”

“Well, if your husband’s handy, you’ll have a chance. That’s the main thing they look for.”

I turned to my husband. “It’s all up to you, honey. Unless…” I turned to the woman. “I don’t mind speaking and presenting, so I have those skills. Maybe in the next five to ten years I can get some kind of degree as a naturalist? I think I could deal with the floating frog, if that’s necessary.”

“There you go!” she exclaimed, “See? You just have to plan. That’s the key. You have to plan for what you want. That’s what we did, and now we’re doing exactly what we want. We love it.”

After we parted ways, I watched her walk those dogs down the path and decided I could do that. I could plan ahead in order to work for free in this setting for this purpose. It may take a while before I’m able to give naturalist talks on the flora and fauna of Florida, but I can learn.

The next afternoon I followed a path to a lagoon and found a clearing where nature presentations are given. I sat on the benches a moment and smelled the salty air. Near the weeds I spotted several wildflowers with pale pink petals boasting an exquisite yellow star design in the center, outlined in red. A state park naturalist would know what they are; I resolved to read all about them.

What do you love? What would you be willing to do—or what are you already doing—for free?

“I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”

Sam at Financial Samurai claims that people don’t quit jobs they love to do. He loves travel, sports, eating, and writing, so he listed his top five “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!” jobs that line up with those interests, which included President of the United States, Michelin food critic, and tennis instructor at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora.

What would be on your list?

Should you work for free?

Seth Godin weighs in on the question. He says it depends on what you mean by "work" and "free." His examples range from designing a logo for the zoo, to writing for the Huffington Post, to being interviewed by Krista Tippett. He includes a series of questions to ponder.

Before Christy Krispin takes on something requiring her to work for free, she asks herself four questions of her own:

  • Will this add significantly to my resumé?
  • Will this take a toll on my family or faith?
  • Will I grow to resent this?
  • Do I want to do this?

Alan Steadman at PetaPixel claims that in general, one should never do work for free. However, sometimes one can consider it. Here’s a partial list of possible instances:

  • Friends (though bartering might be a way to avoid devaluing your skills by giving it away completely without receiving something in return)
  • Charities (sometimes, he says, the work itself is its own reward)
  • Student work (swap skills; that is, you help shoot my book trailer, I’ll edit the script for your next short)

Lifehacker’s Sarah Gilbert feels that on a few occasions, one can consider working for free. For example, when:

  • You have access to the very best in your industry
  • You can learn skills you could learn (only not so quickly) in a for-pay job
  • You can have a title you couldn’t qualify for otherwise
  • Your free work will give you leverage for a for-pay version
  • You just really, really love what your work is doing

How to approach working for free

Marcus Goodyear discusses his family's work in the theater, especially that of his wife, Amy, and how working for free decouples the purpose of work from the results of work. In doing so, they are refusing to let the market be their master.

Linda Kay Klein explores how to enjoy the personal benefits of doing purposeful work—and study after study has shown that there are plenty of them, from psychological wellness to productivity to creativity—while protecting ourselves from its threats of overwork, underpay, and a depletion of energy for our lives outside of work.

Plan for it

To figure out what you love, explore the things you love so much you’d do them for free—whether hobbies or volunteer work. And don’t overlook the tasks you perform within your current full-time work that you enjoy so much you’d do them even if they weren’t part of the job description.

Discover the work you really love. Then work through some of the questions posed in the resources above and take the advice of that naturalist I met in Florida: plan for it. It might take a while, but that’s what she and her husband did, and now they’re doing exactly what they want. And they love it.


Working for Free

In this series, Working for Free, we'll take a look at the different ways people navigate the world of working in a job they love, even when it might not be the way they make ends meet. Join the discussion or share your story in the comments. What do you think? Is passion enough?