I work for free (sometimes).

People are surprised to hear that I sometimes give away my time for free.

I’ve done pro bono work for charities and have entered into fun pitches where I worked in collaboration with web designers/programmers. I sketch for people, and have created some illustrations for select projects too.

No, I’m not bonkers. I just feel that the more I give, the more I receive. I do not think that giving my work away devalues what I do at all. Because when I give my work away for free, I think of it as a gift from me, to whomever the recipient may be.

You see, I am extremely lucky to have been on the receiving end of such generosity – either from friends or family members (I’m looking at you, V) – that I feel that the best I can do to give back is by paying it forward. If only to remind the world that the kindness of strangers is not just a myth. And that there is still hope for genuine warmth and generosity in spirit.

But how, you ask, is the best way to navigate these choppy waters?

Here’s a simple guideline that I subconsciously adhere to whenever I try to determine about giving away my work for free, and it’s something I share with those who ask:

1. Do it for yourself
This is top on my list – I give things away to improve. I wrote and sent short little articles to the local newspaper when I was a tween. I even drew pictures and sent them in (some of which, to my delight, got published!). I did it because it seemed fun at the time. While I never had publishers knocking on my door or monetary remunerations, writing helped me articulate things better, and when I drew I just know that it was so much fun.

I participated in a collaboration once, where a team of developers needed a logo to go along with a certain web application. I whipped one up and it was fun to see the whole team getting excited about it! It felt good to be able to contribute to a team environment – especially where I had no programming chops to offer – and I would do it again in an instant.

But here’s the thing. Some people assume that because you’re having fun, it should be reward enough. This is insulting on many levels (yes, they might have pointed out the obvious, but they don’t need to rub it in) but the point is that such behavior is condescending, rude; and should not be tolerated.

2. It’s for a good cause.
I raised my hand to help out a charity organization with a logo for their new fund-raining and awareness campaign. It felt good, I learned quite a few things along the way and it helped me build connections.

3. You like the person.
It’s super simple, this one. Maybe I’m too generous – but if I like someone and we clicked, I’m more inclined to say yes. Maybe I like their idea. Maybe I like their cause. But most probably, it’s because I want to show my support, especially to those who might not be able to afford what I am able to offer right there and then. I’ve also done barters with a few acquaintances, and instead of paying cash, we exchange things or services; which is tremendously helpful if the barter was out of a mutual need!

4. You have a bit of time to spare
Now, this one doesn’t happen very often (the part about me having time to spare), but instead of filling my time worrying about paying the bills, I’d rather have something to busy myself with (but only if point #1, #2 & #3 applies!) so maybe you might want to think about it from this perspective too.

So don’t worry about giving away your time and skills for free. You just might be surprised at what you’ll get back in return, especially when you least expect it.

Share with us: what would it take to give away your time and expertise for free?

{image courtesy of Widgets & Stone, of Brian Wleklinski. Read his interview why he took on a non-paying internship here.}

Dear students: Get your hands dirty

Kathleen Habbley

Kathleen Habbley

Dear students,

Whenever we talk one on one and I give suggestions on how you can improve your work, I am often time met with frustration. It’s not directed at me, I know that. It’s more that you are frustrated with yourself. I understand this, but when I’ve given you concrete leads to go on, and nudging you with examples on how to proceed, short of taking away your pieces and going to work on it myself – I am a little perplexed at why you aren’t excited (or at the very least, appreciative) for the many suggestions and examples I give.

You have to forgive me. Perhaps it’s because throughout my career I’ve had to solve problems that at the moment, seemed insurmountable. I’ve had to crack my head to think of solutions at the drop of the hat. That’s the life of a project manager, of an editor – we come up with ideas to solve problems that’s right in front of us so that we can move on, quickly. Our team depends on us to wade through problems, shifting them aside to create a clear path for others to do their work. We don’t mope, or show our frustrations – not because we can’t, but it’s because we’re busy thinking up other solutions; and can’t wait to begin putting those theories to the test.

At any point during my problem solving process, I have a Plan A, and a Plan B, and a Plan C all planned out – so I’m not worried about the ideas. Those are cheap and easy to come by. We’ve got to work first and foremost and see which ones will work out. And if Plan A didn’t work, we know that we’ll try Plan B. If we were constantly worried about things we couldn’t see or that we think might happen, we would be frozen indefinitely. Too afraid to move, to try, to fail.

But that’s what too much thinking – instead of doing – does to you.

Maybe the internet has something to do with this. Perhaps if you think you googled something hard enough, or if you used your extra time to search for more ideas online, then you’d be spared of the pain of failing. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. You can’t avoid failure. But by avoiding failure, you’ll ultimately be avoiding success.

[quote] When you’re limited to what you have – instead of being frustrated at what you don’t have – that’s when you are able to shine creatively.  [/quote]

Or maybe you’re looking at what you have, and you can’t wrap your head around how you can change it, to tweak it to be what you see in your mind. If all you do is to piece everything together as is, what is your role then? What makes you different? Why would someone hire you, when they could easily complete a project by throwing stuff together, like you did? Tim Gunn’s infamous words “Make it work,” applies here brilliantly – often time you think you need some expensive material to complete a project. But it may not be so complicated – something simple will just do fine. When you’re limited to what you have – instead of being frustrated at what you don’t have – that’s when you are able to shine creatively.

Real life isn’t like the internet, where everything is limitless and available at a click of a button. But having no borders can be suffocating as well. I see young people exclaim that they don’t have the same materials as they see online, so they can’t produce what they want. They’ve boxed themselves in because they feel they’re limited by what they have, instead of making the best of what they have. And that has got to change. You’ve got to change.

Make stuff. Break stuff. Get your hands dirty. Laugh, cry or scream. But you’ll need to learn right now that you can’t just coast by, expecially by avoiding the work. You need to DO the work. So I suggest that you start right now.

{ Illustration by Kathleen Habbley }

[box icon=”heart”] Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. To read the entire series, click here. [/box]

Dear students: Create your own opportunities

Dear students,

Time and again I hear about your laments; accompanied by the hand-wringing and wails of despair – “how will I ever survive out there in the real world? How can I ever compete? I don’t know where to start, or where to go. I’ll be eaten alive and spat out by the system within the year and whatever love I had for art/illustration will wither and shrink up like tomatoes left out in the sun for too long”. [okay, the tomatoes were my words, not theirs].

I’m used to being a little on the edge. Heck it’s been almost 5 years since I last had a proper desk job where I get a stable paycheck at the end of each month. If I had a penny each time someone comes up to me and said “it must be nice being your own boss,” I’d be filthy rich by now. Like those out there like me, who are freelancers, we know that we have to work at it, everyday. Most of the time, we have to work harder than those who have a check waiting for them at the end of each month, because if we don’t go out there and hustle, there’s not going to be anything waiting for us except a cool glass of water (no offense to those who work on regular full-time work!)

People do this for many reasons – perhaps they make more money this way. Or they’re happier. Or they want to change the world. Or perhaps they’re looking for flexibility in their schedule that wasn’t available to them before. Whatever your reasons, if you want to have a proper go at having a meaningful career, you have to hustle and create your own opportunities.

So here’s a list of what you can do when you get out of university. For those who are driven, do all these before you get out and get a head start:

Take on a less demanding job while you hustle. If you like the idea of getting your work out there, get a second job to survive and work on your craft during whatever time you have left over. If I hear moans of not having time, my reflex automatically veers towards giving you a good smack up the head. Because that’s an excuse for being lazy. And laziness won’t get you anywhere.

Have a web presence. Create an online portfolio. Use services like Behance or Cargo to get your site running in less than a week. Don’t know how to go about it? Google is your best friend. Again, don’t be lazy.

Don’t mope, moan or complain. Just do it. If you’re forever frozen because you’re scared of what bad things might happen – you’ll never get anything done.

Turn off the computer. Unplug. Get some fresh air. Information overload can cause serious I-can’t-do-it-itis because you’re just consuming instead of creating.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking local. Think global. The internet has opened up so many opportunities to show your work out there. And so many people are using this opportunity. Remember that it’s merely a tool; a portal if you will – you’ll still need to work up your courage to step through it. And then show them the best of what you have. Read this timely article by Derek Sivers about choosing to be local, or going global.

Create your own opportunities. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, like what Johanna Basford has done here (see video above). Some people say that you shouldn’t do the work before being commissioned and with a piece of paper in your hands. Bullshit. Be generous – show what you can do first, especially people are unsure about your capabilities or when you have nothing to show but a bunch of student work (which you think could be better). Be smart about it though – show that you can solve problems, not just make pretty things that can be recreated by an intern. If you’re good, there’s plenty more where that came from, so don’t be afraid to open up.

Change the world. Have something to say. Be an active participant in life, and be the change you want to see in the world [Mahatma Gandhi]. Blaze your own trail – don’t be afraid to create works that speak of your passion for a better future.

If only you can see yourself as how I see you. There’s so much potential in each of you that I am thrilled to watch you grow. But right now all I can do is to make you believe in yourself and to let you see what you’re capable of – the rest is up to you.

{Video: The Starbucks (inky) Red Cup from Johanna Basford on Vimeo.}


Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. 

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