The self-evident and life-changing truth about working for free

America’s workers of the future (and present).
America’s workers of the future (and present).
Image: Getty Images/Joe Raedle
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Brooke Allen’s piece, “The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all,” has drawn many responses from readers seeking advice on how to negotiate a better deal for themselves. Over the next few weeks, we will publish a few of his answers.

Question: I saw your article in Quartz. Every time I get a new job, I let my employers make the offer. But they underpay me. I have a job interview coming up and I don’t know the salary range, but I was going to tell them that the median salary for an engineer in my city is $72,000.

Now, your article is making me doubt my approach. Thoughts?

Brooke Allen: What would be a fair pay for you? If you were a below-median engineer, would it be fair to be paid as much as $72,000? If you were better than average, would that be unfair?

If you are unemployed, would you consider working for $30,000 just for the experience? If you did that, it would certainly seem fair to tell the employer that you are likely to keep looking for better pay, but in the meantime you are happy to be of value to someone rather than not.

Well, the life-changing (and yet self-evident) thing I learned is that when I am unemployed the opportunity cost of my time is $0. So I should work for free while getting people to bid up for my time.

If I want to be paid the most, I should work at the highest value things, even for free.

Most people don’t do this. If they work for free, they try to do the lowest value work because otherwise they feel taken advantage of. Aspiring web designers who imagine making $50/hour might babysit for free but won’t design websites for free. This is a great idea if they aspire to become a professional babysitter, but people won’t bid up their design skills if they don’t spend their time designing.

When I’ve been unemployed, I’d have the feeling that I was of no use to anyone. That was so terrible, that I’d almost pay to work. In fact, you might consider schooling as a form of “super-unemployment” because you are paying to have people give you work that doesn’t need to be done. Working for free doing work that needs to be done is a big step up, and everything else I might get paid feels like gravy.

This attitude has served me very well. I’m 60 years old, and although I’ve always started out getting paid much less than the median wage in everything I’ve attempted, I’ve ended up getting paid much more than I could have dreamed, and now I have more than enough money to retire if I want. Instead, I’ve decided to learn how to write, and again I’m starting at the bottom, writing for free. Someday I hope to be paid—not because I need the money—but because, as my grandmother once told me about her paintings, “Everyone will compliment you on your work, but when they write a check, then you know they are sincere.” In the meantime, I’m concentrating on being worth more than I cost, and costing nothing pretty much guarantees that.

Here is a story that might help you. In it, I describe how an 18-year-old landed work with my boss in the face of much more talented competition. Later, I used a similar approach to land a consulting gig, where if you notice, I offered to work for peanuts and instead was paid the most they paid anyone.

Hope this gets you in the right frame of mind for your interview.