Working for free – targeted skill acquisition


There are no substitutes for hard knowledge and skill.  The possession of a valuable skill set is a trait that 100% of self-made men share.

Here we explore strategically working for free to seize the specific skills you want.  Classic deferral of gratification for a greater benefit.

Consider the scenarios of unpaid work that I outline below and compare them to the conventional advice you already know such as spending years at college or grinding your way up from the bottom rungs of a company.


Conventional advice for obtaining skills is flawed

Get a college degree:

college degree meme

Despite what your mother (and damn near everyone else) told you, college is not typically a time or financially efficient path to competency.

As a former “good boy,” I dutifully followed this advice and and sacrificed the entirety of my late teens and twenties at the alter of the college-debt scam.  50% of my prime was extinguished by putting an irrational importance upon college.

My friends who either didn’t attend college or went to a trade school had much more money and freedom than me by their late 20’s.  Many were transitioning to entrepreneurship, having families, and paying off houses around the time I repaid my college debt.

And I didn’t major in some useless degree.  I graduated from a major university, top 10% of my class in engineering!

Some still argue that I could eventually come out financially ahead of my friends by the time of retirement.  Even if this is statistically true (thought I have serious doubts), nobody asked me if I wanted to sacrifice financial freedom in the prime of my life for a slightly better standard of living when I am old.


On the job training

This isn’t bad advice, but it is still a highly constrained arrangement.

With paid jobs you are at the mercy of:

  • When positions are available
  • Competing with nepotism
  • Competing with affirmative action hires
  • A bosses whim to move you to a project or department that isn’t in line with you interest.
  • Work schedules that may be in conflict with other life activities
  • Downturns in business and layoffs
  • The “you’ve got eat shit and earn your dues attitude” of some workplaces

You sacrifice A LOT of options for that paycheck.


Consider a self-determined approach to gaining skills

When you feel an attraction to a discipline with income earning potential, the next step is to think of the most efficient way to become skilled in that field.


Benefits of working for free

You can target the exact skills you want

You can tell the boss, “That project looks interesting or so-and-so seems very knowledgeable, I’d like to lend a hand there.”

There is very little reason for a boss to deny this.  You are showing initiative and enthusiasm and he has no financial friction.  People normally say “Yes” in these situations.

No competition

Billionaire and early Pay Pal investor, Peter Thiel famously said, “Competition is for losers.”

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
  • Peter Thiel
  • “…the most important skill that every leader must master: learning to think for yourself.”

Working for free bypasses competition.  Every other schmuck that lives paycheck to paycheck can’t compete with you.  Nepotism can’t compete with you.  Affirmative action hires can’t compete with you.

Work on your terms

Getting comfortable with setting your terms is a valuable skill in and of itself! It puts you in an entrepreneurial mindset.  Once these switches get turned on in your brain, you have them for life.

You can say things like:

“I am incredibly interested in the machining division.  I assure you I won’t get in the way and will be able to add value.”

“I have a side business and would like to only work three days a week so I can keep that going.”

“I need to take a week off”

You get the idea.  Gate keepers can’t use money to leverage power over you.

Direct path to future (and higher paid) employment

By giving a company a free preview of what you bring to the table, you eliminate the employers financial risk of taking on a new employee.

It is very costly for a business to make a bad hire.  With you, they know what they are getting.

Because you have reduced their financial risk, you have built in value that you can leverage into a higher than normal starting salary.

As a young Gail Wynand said in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand…

“You don’t have to pay me.  You’ll put me on salary when you’ll feel you’d better.”

In the book, Wynand went on to be wealthy and powerful newspaper owner.

How to do it

Temporary Financial Freedom

First, you need enough money in your savings account to sustain you.  You can reach this goal quicker if is possible for you to live temporarily at a friend or relatives house rent free.

If you have no money and no family help, you will have to work hard at an unskilled job and save.

Make the best use of your time by doing something that exercise your body and/or gives you useful skills/connections like construction work (even if that isn’t the ultimate trade you desire).

Consider service jobs like retail cashier or burger flipper a last resort.

Live like a Spartan

This helps both to accumulate money and to make it last.

Once, I rented a 10’x10′ room in a dirty trailer in a dirty trailer park for a year.  I saved enough money to live three years in SE Asia.

Most of my friends would have refused to live in such conditions.  These same friends constantly asked me how I had enough money to live abroad.

During my time in Asia, I self-educated myself on several subjects and started a 3D printed product business and this website.

Networking and Making the Pitch

An old fashioned family or personal connection to a business is the easiest way to get a food in the door.  However, most people aren’t well networked, so we will take pro-active steps to create connections.

My recommended strategy is to visit small to medium sized business in person.  If the company isn’t too big, you have a good chance of meeting a decision maker.

Present yourself well and have your elevator pitch ready.  You have a simple message to deliver:

You are a bright and enthusiastic person that is happy to work for free in exchange for experience.  Be prepared to offer how long you can commit.


Skills ARE the shortcut

The hardest part about obtaining skills is getting yourself into the best environment to learn them.

When you see no conventional path, you must make your own.


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