Would You Do It For Free?
It's a question worth asking.
When it comes to picking projects, hobbies, or anything worth doing, I ask myself one question... And if I don’t ask it explicitly, I ask via my own choices.
The question is: “Would you do it for free?”
Most of the time the answer is no. But sometimes the answer is yes.
The reason I love this question is it cuts to the heart of intrinsic motivation. Am I motivated enough to take on a project because I want to see it exist? Or, is my motivation something else? That’s a useful thing to understand and here’s why…
Intrinsic Motivation Matters
Creating something new is quite a bit of work. It takes energy and resources and time. Getting to the finish line is no small task.
What are the odds of finishing something if I’m not super motivated from the start? I’ll tell you it’s zero most of the time. And even if I’m super motivated, finishing a project is still hard.
For me, getting clarity on motivation is a huge advantage. When I know I’m psyched about a project enough to finish, that gives me a bit of extra motivation/belief in the project. I need that. I function better with that level of clarity.
The question of “would you do it for free?” is also like asking if I’d do it without an audience. Like, would I show up to record my music or put out a video if nobody listens or watches? For my best and most exciting work, yes I would!
When I’m excited to finish a project, I don’t care if anyone else cares. It’s not for them. It’s for me. I share a project with the world sometimes, but most of the time I’m not making things to please an audience.
I Would Do That For Free…
For example, when I was learning computer programming, I wanted to make my own video games. So I learned C and C++ in hopes of making my own games. Nobody told me to do that. There was no money in it. There was no social media to post my projects at the time, so there was no audience. Really, I was the audience. I wanted to make something cool. That’s how I learned to code!
Would I write software for free? Yes. I’ve done that. I was writing software on my own for almost 10 years before it was my profession. It's ironic that now I get paid very well for something I would do for free. Life is weird like that.
NOTE: I’m not saying you should work for free. This is about understanding where you are intrinsically motivated enough that money is not your main motivation.
So when I’m looking at which project to take on next, many times I’ll pick up something programming related because I enjoy it. Many of my fun programming side projects have been 100% for fun and made me zero dollars.
I can say the same for writing. Most of my writing is for fun. It doesn’t make me money. Even this article I’m writing because I wanted to. It was something I’m thinking about, so I wrote about it.
This question serves as a useful decision making filter like Derek Sivers’ “It’s either hell yes or no!” Either I’m 100% into something, or I’m not.
If I’m not all in on a project, why bother? Better to just say no and move on with life.
The truth is, there are too many fun and interesting projects to be able to do them all. So, why say no to the great projects by saying yes to the mediocre ones?
It doesn’t make sense to waste my life on projects I don’t believe in.
To the best of my ability I seek out things I’d do for free. They aren’t always the flashy projects. It’s not that anyone is begging me to do them. I want them to exist or I’m irrationally exuberant in that moment. It doesn’t matter as long as it gets me moving.
Intrinsic motivation allows me to create from a more generous place. Generosity is underrated. Everything seems to work better when it’s coming from a generous place. And from my experience generous people seem to do better over time.
Magic happens when generosity is part of your “secret sauce”. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. Generous people have a distinct quality about them that is worth emulating.
For me, the question of “would you do it for free?” is a useful one. It’s worth asking and re-asking as you think about which projects to pursue. It might save you a lot of wasted energy on dead end projects.
If you ever find yourself at a crossroads about which project to pursue, ask yourself "Would I do it for free?". If the answer is “no”, it’s worth reconsidering your effort.
P.S. I believe someone once said that the best things in life are free, so maybe there’s something to this idea after all.