One of the things I’ve noticed about having professional skills is that people seem to expect to be able to utilize them for free. This appears to be a common thing; my massage therapist friends always get asked for massages, my artist friends are constantly being asked for free work, a baker acquaintance is harassed for free cakes, and so forth.
This is something I have struggled with over the last few months, because I like to do things for friends, but there’s a line somewhere that has to be drawn. I feel like a lot of the people who expect free things from me aren’t even that close to me, and yet they think that I’m going to give them things because of our vaguely connected association. It’s even more irksome when people obviously don’t contact me unless they want something from me, which is fine when you’re a paying client, but not so fine when you claim to be a friend. It’s pretty obvious when you’re being used, is that I’m driving at here.
Here’s the thing: I enjoy writing and editing, or I wouldn’t choose to pursue these things professionally. I also love the relationships that I have with some of my friends; the kind of relationships where I don’t feel the need to keep track of favors, and things done, because we don’t need to. I also think it’s important to try and donate services to people in need; for example, I regularly review college admission essays and resumes for free because I think that having these documents edited is a really good idea, and not everyone can afford that.
But I strongly dislike the assumption that I should give my services and skills away for free to whoever asks for them, especially when people draw upon non-existent interpersonal connections to claim my skills. I do a lot of things for free, with an entirely non-commercial intent, like this website, like six:fourteen, like donating time and money to organizations which need it. Knowing someone doesn’t entitle me to their services free of charge; I wouldn’t walk into a friend’s restaurant and expect free food, or ask a massage therapist friend to give me a massage and expect her not to charge, or anticipate free surgery from a doctor acquaintance. The thing is that all of these skills and services require training, which costs money, and time. And, in some cases, they require a support crew, and that crew needs to be paid and cared for. Yes, all of these professions are chosen out of passion and love, but that doesn’t mean that these things are not jobs, that people do not depend on them to make a living, or that a professional is a bad person for expecting renumeration for his or her skills.
There’s a difference between giving something to someone out of a genuine desire to do so, and feeling forced into it through obligational expectations. I love giving things to people; I daresay I’m actually a reasonably generous person. But I don’t like being abused, used, and put-upon, and I don’t think that anyone does. As a young professional, I also think that a very important part of my professional identity is placing a value on my services, is recognizing that yes, I have skills that other people do not. I also think that people value my services more when they pay for them in some form, whether it’s cash or barter, because that act, that financial transaction, is a powerful thing. It says that someone values the services that they receive, and it says that I respect that person’s need for my services, and I will do my utmost to ensure that they get what they need.
Payment can take many forms. I think that barter is a great thing, and people should be utilizing it a lot more, especially on the local level. Someone might not have money, but she might be an amazing potter, and maybe we can work out a deal for some cups or plates in exchange for my work. Or someone might really need help with writing a grant for his organic farm, in which case maybe I can get fresh fruits and vegetables out of the deal. But I do think that people need to respect the professionals they know; if someone wants to volunteer their services and freely give them, that’s great, and that’s a gift that should be accepted. But it’s time to stop expecting goodies from people just because you went to high school with them, or you say hi to them when you pass them on the street.
There are some people in my life that I would never even dream of charging, and they know who they are, and they don’t abuse that privilege. These people have given so much to me, in so many ways, that I couldn’t actually reasonably imagine charging them for anything. But they’ve put in the time for years to get a free ride, and we have cultivated long-lasting relationships which allow them to do things like emailing me copy to look over at the last minute, just as I can call them in the wee hours of the morning because I am sad and lonely.
The next time you’re tempted to ask a professional you know for a donation of their services, ask yourself if you would be willing to reciprocate, if you were in their shoes. Ask yourself how well you know this person, and how much effort it will take for them to give their services to you. I know that what we do might not seem like work sometimes, but it is. It’s very hard work, and it takes a very long time to get where we are.
I think as professionals that it is also important to utilize the power of pro bono work. It’s not just karma or what have you, it’s also good business to a certain extent to do work for free upon occasion. It’s better business when you do it in a way which promotes your business in some way, like agreeing to cater a charity event as opposed to catering a friend’s wedding, but being known as a generous person is a good thing, especially in a small town. I suspect that many of us could give a bit more, and maybe we would feel better about giving if it was appreciated, rather than expected.