When Do You Give Away Your Work and When Do You Say No?

Two seemingly contradictory things have been going through my mind of late. I’ve started to try and freelance more writing, especially personal essays. I’ve had some success at places like Ravishly. Many love my ideas, but there’s just one small problem. They won’t pay me. Oh I get exposure, but my time, my effort, my stories? They don’t have the funds to do that.

It becomes a choice: do I say thanks but no thanks? Do I give my work away?

On the other side of the pendulum, a good friend of mine is a consultant for a tech company. In their mailroom is an incredibly smart and hardworking 18 year old who is working after school to help take care of his family. He wants to go to a California university for engineering. Small problem: He can’t afford tuition.

The company decided to invest in this bright employee: They’ll pay for tuition, books, and housing for all four years. They’re willing to spend over a hundred thousand dollars to help him go to college.

Is one the savvier business move? What should an entrepreneurial creative do?

Knowing your worth


For so many creative people, we struggle to understand the value of our work. Yes, I say work. It takes time and energy to write a story. It takes equipment to paint or write a song. It takes sweat and occasional blood blisters to create a great dance. It requires as much time and effort as the work people do in offices, on the road, or in meetings.

Creative work deserves to be valued not only by ourselves, but also others. As a writer, this means I have to decide how much pieces are worth, or how to negotiate that value.

Do I personally find my business blog posts as valuable as my personal essays? Not really. Yet the market also has power over it: There’s more competition in the personal essay market. So how I’m financially paid is different. That’s ok.

It’s less about the financial amount of money and more about the process. Do I feel like my work is being rewarded equitably for the market? Do I feel like it’s worth the time and effort I’m putting in? These are the questions I ask. As an INFJ, the emotional feeling matters most to me. If I feel like I’m being taken advantage of, then it’s only going to make me feel resentful and angry for the long haul.

Knowing your worth and what you are and aren’t willing to do is critical. It’s not just about nickels and dimes. Work is a relationship, with your audience or buyer. Your limits and values will change over time. Creating a process  helps you say no to work that leaves you exhausted and angry. It helps you stay open to the real opportunities that light you up and treat you well, financially or not.

The karma of generosity

seagull clique

Bill Clinton once said that altruism is inherently selfish. We’re all tied together. We live in a world of relationships. Thinking about ourselves first and only is a short term and near sighted perspective.

Altruism can have massive benefits for us. The California company giving one employee a college education? It’s not without caveats. This employee will work part time through the school year and commit to 5 years working with their organization after college. They are changing one employee’s life, but they also see him as an investment. This employee will come back with more skills and have a dedicated investment in the company.

They may be giving away over 100k today, but they’re gaining an employee with incredible potential.

For creative types, giving away work often opens doors and becomes promotion. My photography, for example, began as a hobby. I give a lot of it away on Instagram, sharing how I see the world and what I find beautiful.

Unintentionally, it’s become a marketing platform. Friends have asked for prints to decorate their apartments.  Right now, I’m working on printing and framing a photograph as a wedding present for a friend of mine. Not only do I give a unique gift, but my work will hang in their house for years to come. Who knows? Someone may see it and want a print.

It may not feel like quid pro quo, but I believe a sense of generosity helps us connect and open doors that we may never thought possible previously.

The surprising similarity

working bees

Both of these values share something incredibly important: willingness and wanting. Begrudgingly giving away your creative work doesn’t work. It will leave you feeling walked over. You have to be willing to stand up for yourself and say you deserve to be paid for your work and what you believe your value really is.

Both require initiative. They ask you to be a willing participant and decision maker in your life and career. It can be uncomfortable. For some, a willingness to say “hey, I’m talented and here’s how to work with me,” can feel too much like sales. Yet, very few people will refuse work that’s free.

For others, a willingness to help others can be difficult. They may feel too busy, too tired to be able to help someone out. Why should a stranger benefit from their hard work? It’s important to remember here that work is full of social relationships. Treating people well will improve your business over the long run.

Neither of these have to start in big ways. It can be as simple as

  • Donating one piece of work to a charity fundraiser.
  • Saying no when a potential client doesn’t feel right
  • Setting aside one hour a month to give away your service or expertise
  • Deciding what your value is worth per piece, per time, or per project

All of these can have massive benefits not only for your pocket book or karma, but also how you feel as a creative working professional.

What do you give away? How do you ensure your work is valued? 


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