I had a discussion with a marketing person about putting on a workshop. One of the first things she said was that I should give “scholarships” so that part of the audience could attend for free.
There are several questions implicit in this idea.
One. I should work for free. I specifically should work for free. Why me?
Two. People who do my type of work should work for free. Why? Why us and not others?
Three. Certain people should get things for free while others pay. Why them? An argument can be made that there is always someone out there who is more deserving.
These are serious questions. I talked it out with my husband, who is an engineer, and he thinks the whole thing is absurd. Literally nobody has ever asked him for free engineering. Is this because of his profession, because he is male, or because he does not happen to work in one of the few fields that is considered to qualify as compensation-optional?
One of my husband’s life goals is to volunteer for Engineers Without Borders, helping people in the developing world to have access to better sanitation, infrastructure, etc. He has the skills and it sounds fun and rewarding. Why doesn’t anyone imply that he should be doing this humanitarian work right now, today, instead of during retirement?
The criteria for “you should work for free” seem to be:
“Fulfilling” or intrinsically rewarding work
Opportunity to build an audience
Therefore, teachers are told that they shouldn’t mind working around the clock for low wages because teaching is so fulfilling. But dental hygienists and nurses aren’t told this.
Writers are told to write for free, for the exposure, but accountants are not told this.
Musicians are told to perform for free, but florists are not told this.
Graphic designers are told to give away their work, but printers and publishers are not told this.
Yoga instructors are expected to offer a sliding scale, but massage therapists are not told this.
Isn’t it strange? We don’t tend to think of these jobs as divided between “people with rent to pay” and “people with no rent to pay” or “people who buy groceries to eat” and “people who do not require food to live.”
I think this is partly because people have learned to expect and demand 24/7 access to the highest quality entertainment, free of charge. Why should any of us ever pay for music, for funny videos, for wallpaper images, for news articles?
No matter what income level, people spend the same percentage of their income on entertainment. That’s the only category that is the same across all five quintiles. It’s just that we’re willing to pay if we know it’s the only way we can get ahold of the entertainment we want.
Stepping back for a moment, I personally have spent years providing material to an audience for free. There are at least two thousand pages of content on this blog, for instance. I have always had pro bono clients as well.
I’m starting to question this, because the clients who don’t pay take significantly longer to make any progress, if they ever really do. I’ve started to feel that receiving support and coaching without some kind of energy exchange is actually negative for the client. Somehow it seems to make them feel needier and more helpless, more reliant on cheerleading and external motivation.
My proposal for the workshop series that led to a call for scholarships included a way for committed but broke people to attend. I built in a couple of support positions that would include free attendance. All someone would have to do would be to help sign people in and pass out a couple of handouts. I’ve done the same thing myself as an office temp. This isn’t the same as “FREE” though. Why doesn’t it work?
Why is there some kind of impression of sketchiness or greed involved in expecting an audience to exchange something for something?
The thing about event planning is that venues are very expensive. Most of the ticket cost for an event is basically rent for the space. There’s also printing, the cost of which ramps up as the materials get glossier and more colorful. Asking to attend such an event for free is not just saying, “I should not pay.” It’s saying, “YOU should pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to host this event so that I can attend for free.”
I think people don’t realize what goes into producing their free entertainment. All the hopeful musicians who invest thousands into their instruments and recording equipment. All the hopeful podcasters who not only buy recording equipment, but also pay to host their show. This extends outward. All the hopeful yoga instructors who pay to lease the studio and then clean the restrooms themselves. All the schoolteachers who buy school supplies out of pocket and grade papers in their “spare time.”
All the people working nights and weekends, striving for a dream, all still have rent and bills to pay and groceries to buy. People who are expected to work for free are exactly like everyone else who is never expected to work for free.
This is an inherently annoying concept, granted. I don’t want to think about whether my dental hygienist deserves her salary, nor do I want to think about whether I should financially support my favorite bloggers in some way. Do you?
I do, though, want to live in a fair and just world. I want to make sure I am more of a giver than a taker. I like the idea that I am contributing to my culture in some way, and maybe making something that has a chance of lasting a few minutes past my lifetime. What I would not want is to realize that I’ve come to the end of my days, doing little more than passively consuming other people’s efforts. Or writing one-star reviews about them!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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