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How to Decide if You Should Work for Free

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Whether you’re just starting your career, trying to break into a competitive industry, or launching a freelancing business, there comes a time when many of us are faced with a tough question: Should I work for free? 

It’s a complicated issue with valid arguments on both sides, so knowing the pros and cons can help you decide when it may be the right decision for you.


We all want to be paid for our time and effort. There are, however, a few scenarios in which you might consider donating that time and effort. For starters, if you’re just breaking in to an industry and you need to develop certain skills, a non-paying job might give you access to resources that can help you build those skills. “I built my network and job security by working for free very strategically,” Robbie Abed, creator of the Fire Me I Beg You program, tells mental_floss. “It gave me access to connections that still prove valuable today.” 

Abed lists a few instances in which working for free can be a smart move: If you get to build connections with people you wouldn’t normally get to meet, or you get access to certain resources, the job might be worth it, he says. Even so, you should still make sure the hours and terms are extremely flexible.

“Basically, only do it if it's on your terms,” says Abed. “If you have hard deadlines, then you're getting used.”


Even if you are building skills and experience, working for free can be the wrong choice. Abed disagrees with working strictly for exposure or to build a resume, for example. 

“The biggest reason I'm against it to build exposure is that this used to work 20 years ago. Now, we have this wonderful thing called the internet that allows us to build our own brand on our own terms,” he says. “Why work for free as a marketing analyst when you can build your own blog and build your own brand? You can show the world how you can not only create interesting content, you know how to market that content ... So instead of working free for a company, you can work free for yourself and arguably have a better return on investment.”

Beyond that, some argue that working for free lowers the bar for others in your industry. When you agree to produce quality work for nothing, you increase the supply of free labor, which theoretically devalues the services your industry provides. 

“I may be overly sensitive from spending most of my 20s in the music business and working three unpaid internships in college, but I'm not in favor of writing for free,” says Kate Dore, a writer who runs the personal finance site Cashville Skyline. “Even with a full-time job to cover my bills, I feel a duty to our community to be compensated appropriately.”

She also agrees with Abed about working for free to gain exposure: “Exposure isn't recognized as currency at the electric company.”


As a compromise, content marketer Katherine Kotaw recommends offering a sample of your work. “Never work cheap, but give your work away when it serves your long-term goals,” she says. “For example, if a potential client insists I reduce my fee, I walk away. If a potential client says, ‘I love your work, but you're twice as expensive as your competitors,’ I offer a free sample.” 

Kotaw offers the sample with the below set of conditions. And while her rule of thumb is aimed at freelance work, these conditions translate to internships, too. According to Kotaw, she will only send her free sample if:

- I know I can prove my value ... meaning I am fully confident I will get hired and paid.

- The project will benefit both my pocket and my portfolio. It's worth giving a sample to a Fortune 500 company or a potential Fortune 100 company (a startup such as Google), but generally not worth it for a small company or entrepreneur.

- If the potential client's purpose meshes with my own, giving a free sample is like giving to charity—I'll feel good about it even if the money isn't great. 

Every situation is unique, however, so there’s no blanket, foolproof formula for deciding whether working for free is smart in your own individual scenario. On his blog, writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin suggests some questions to ask yourself before making a decision. Here are a few of them:

- Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?

- Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?

- Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for?

- Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?

If you’re more of a visual person, designer Jessica Hische built this useful flowchart to inform your decision.

The bottom line: Most career paths don’t come with a blueprint, and ultimately, you have to decide on the best course of action for your own situation. If you still can’t decide after weighing the aforementioned considerations, Abed suggests a simple gut test: “If you even have the slightest ‘I think this person is trying to use me’ moment, don't do it.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]