What to do when you’re faced with the option to take on unpaid work.

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Should you ever work for free? The answer should be a quick and unequivocal NO, right?

After all, we work to make our livings. Our time and talents have value, and they deserve to be remunerated.

However, in an age when corporations have no trouble offering “exposure” or “experience” in place of real dollars and cents, it’s likely you may someday find yourself tempted by the offer of an unpaid internship or apprenticeship. Your task is to determine when to consider it, and when to walk away.

In a nutshell, a non-paying gig is worth your time if it:

• gives you access to the top people in your field
• teaches you skills you couldn’t learn otherwise


• leads to landing a paid position in the not-so-distant future.

Your field of choice can also be an issue. If, say, you wish to become a wedding photographer, you’ll probably need to offer a few freebies at the beginning. Same goes for interior decorating, public speaking (TED and TEDx speakers are not paid but presenting at one of those events could launch your career), website design and almost any career in the arts.

In addition, you should ask yourself if success in your field depends heavily on who you know. For example, the movie biz, management consulting, venture capital and politics are all about contacts. Hiring in the tech industry (computer and network security, software, hardware, games) is very often done from within. In cases like these, it makes sense to spend time and energy proving your worth to people already working in the field in which you want to excel.

Of course, not everything is about the money. If you love something so much you don’t even care if it turns into paid work, then feel free to lend it some of your time, energy and passion. Just be sure not to overextend yourself, because you still do need to eat.

Speaking of which, it’s also a good idea to set limits on how often or how many times you’ll work for no pay, at the same time keeping track of whether your efforts are reaping the rewards you intended. As long as you remain clear on your ultimate goals while keeping your own best interests in mind, you’ll be OK.