Does working for free actually pay off?

A lot of us grew up with the belief that if we offered our services free or cheaply, we would win more and better employment as a reward.

In fact, as a child I vividly remember my dad telling me how a medical intern he was supervising had clocked off and left the hospital at exactly the end of his shift—even though my dad still had several things he wanted to teach this person. My dad told me that this behaviour indicated a bad attitude; this person should have been eager and willing to stay past finishing time to demonstrate his enthusiasm and dedication to the field.

Lately, as I recall this conversation, I find myself thinking of this self-respecting junior doctor and feeling like he or she must now have a very nice, balanced life.

Perhaps my dad’s perspective held some water at the time of our conversation, but these days, I see more and more evidence that giving one’s labor too freely only devalues your overall market worth.

My husband put it all too clearly a few days ago when I casually observed that my recent (in the last few years) penchant for doing whatever it takes to deliver (even if it means working extra, unpaid hours) has paid absolutely zero dividends in terms of real compensation or job growth.

Even more ominously, he pointed out that the year he spent working for a tech start-up (and frequently getting shorted large sums on his paychecks) also did little to help him ultimately make money—he eventually had to cut his losses and leave the company. He may never see the money he is owed.

The scary reality seems to be that by working too cheaply or for free you very clearly and definitely set your value low. In a way, it is perfectly fair and you have no grounds for complaint; you already stated this was your value—or that your time was not worth very much.

In the museum field, the compulsion to overwork is often caused by the oversupply issue that exists in the museum labor market. With so few jobs available, how do you distinguish yourself from the countless, qualified others?

Yet, if you act as though you have all the time in the world to check email and pick up other work while also hustling to work your other part-time jobs (hypothetically speaking), you undersell your worth.

So what do we think? What is the best long-term strategy for accurately establishing your worth in the arts and museum field?