Why Not Go Work for an Awesome Company Now?

Many people can’t get paid jobs because they lack experience.  Most will go pay a lot of money to buy a credential in hopes that it gets them access to the jobs, or take a different job.  You could also just see if you can do the job for free as a way to get access.  Apparently, this is a controversial suggestion.

Today I posted the following on Facebook:

Young people: if you have the choice:

Work with awesome people on interesting stuff for no pay


Work with average people on average stuff for a salary higher than most of your peers

Which would you take?

I suggest the former will pay off 5 or 10 tens more over the short term psychologically and over mid-long term financially as well.

Avoid anything that makes taking the former opportunity more difficult. (Debt, obligation, geographical restrictions, pressure from others, promises you wish you hadn’t made, etc.)

And this:

Imagine your favorite existing company or your dream startup idea. If someone there came to you and said, “We want you to work with us! We just can’t pay you right now.”

Could you do it? Would you?

If you’re 15-25, I’d say a major goal should be to be in a position where you can afford to say yes.

I was baffled by the number of comments and private messages I received from people who passionately disagreed or found these posts dangerous, ignorant, or offensive.  You never know what things will rile people up on the internet.  Didn’t expect this to be one of them!

No, the posts are not anti-work.  No, they are not anti-money or anti-capitalist.  No, they do not claim in any way that everyone should share the same time preference or risk tolerance.  No, they do not imply that working for free is morally or practically better than working for pay.

The posts are making a point about the particular position of young people early in their careers.  They spend tens of thousands of dollars and several years attempting to gain credentials they hope will grant them access to jobs they like and that can sustain them.  My question is, why not just go get that job now?  Work for free if it’s the only way.  Working for free at a great company is probably better than paying to not get paid at a university so that you can hopefully work for enough pay to cover your debt later.  It’s probably more likely to lead to more money and happiness in the long term.

Do it when you’re young and inexperienced your opportunity cost is low and your financial obligations are few.  Invest in yourself by trading pay for great experience if you can.  That’s what many people think they’re doing with school.  What’s different about working instead?  In many cases, it’s better.

But let’s say you’re out of school already.  I think the same question applies.  Ask yourself, if a great opportunity came your way that didn’t have a lot of money with it but it did have a lot of long term promise, would you and could you take it?  You don’t have to in order to be a good person.  It’s your life, not mine.  But if you wish you could but think you can’t because you have a lot of financial or other obligations, the point is to consider ways in which you can reduce those obligations.  Be in a position to take advantage of the best opportunities (measured on all fronts, not just by pay).  The golden handcuffs are real, and they can hurt.  I’ve written before how debt can limit your options, and how lack of income can be an asset.

If at an incredibly young age you already find yourself having to take a job you don’t like because nothing else will cover your expenses, you might try to find ways to reduce the obligations.  I’m not saying don’t work hard.  I’m not saying money doesn’t matter.  I’m not even taking a side on the follow your passion/don’t follow your passion debate.

I think people overestimate the long term value of money early in their career, and underestimate the long term value of time well spent early in their career.  The latter has greater returns.  I’ve talked to many stressed out new employees who are thinking about not taking a job they love because it pays $27,000, instead of the $31,000 they’re making at the job they can tolerate.  I’ve been there myself more than once.  The thing is, in a few years, and certainly in ten years, that extra money will mean little to you, as much as it feels like right now.  But your time and how well you spent it will mean even more, not to mention the network and skills you build along the way.  Odds are that not just in happiness, but in long-term financial rewards, you’ll do better going with the one that is more up your alley vs. a few thousand bucks.

I’ve never worked for free except on side projects and launching my own company.  I’ve never had an internship.  I’ve always been a paperboy or grocery clerk or golf course go-getter or construction worker or something else to earn money.  The sooner I was able to merge my interests with my income the happier I was.  That’s not for everyone.  But I can tell you many of the best decisions I’ve made were saying no to well paying jobs.  I could have been a pharmaceutical rep at age 19 and had a company car, benefits, and starting at $50-60k.  I couldn’t be happier that I picked a series of jobs with a higher ceiling and more in line with the kind of people I wanted to be around and the kind of stuff I really love doing.  That extra $25k in starting salary seemed like a million bucks at the time.  Now it seems like it would have been more than foolish to take it instead of the path I chose.  If you’re doing great work and working hard at it, the financial rewards will come.

I am not preaching dependence.  Far from it.  This is a message of independence.  Don’t just take internship after internship and live with mom and dad until you’re 40.  Heck no.  Don’t be dependent.  Be independent of as many things as possible – debt, promises, other people, and even a certain income level.  That’s the point.  Pick things that take advantage of your strengths even if the pay is low upfront because of what it can be down the road, and because of the fulfillment you’ll get.  Don’t get locked into an income level that your friends think is cool if it limits your options.

Get paid if you can and as much as you can.  But the idea that schooling is the only way to invest in yourself for greater future gains is absurd.  As is the idea that a better salary is always the best long-term payoff.  Why not give up income to gain human capital on the job?

If after all this you still don’t get my point or think I’m somehow against work, or money, or subjective value, or rainbows and hugs and everything lovely, this post is not for you anyway.  If it resonates with you as similar advice and thinking did with me many years ago, take it to heart.

Time and money are both valuable.  One of them you can create more of, the other you can’t.