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No More Free Lunches, Please

Two weeks ago, the man at the vegetable store packed a handful of extra greens, garlic and chillies in a plastic bag and stuffed it into my take-away kit at the end of my shopping. When I offered to pay for it, he raised his hand and said, ‘It’s okay.’ I felt awkward to accept the extras, but I took shopkeeper’s gesture as a compliment for the rapport I had established with him over a period of time.

The episode got me thinking about the great penchant we have for freebies and the gumption with which we ask for them from people.

From asking for ‘an autographed copy’ of my books to expecting my speaking sessions and webinars to be delivered without charge, I have been a ‘victim’ to umpteen such requests. These instances have made me wonder what on earth makes people believe that not paying for a service or a product is an accomplishment. How on earth does that establish one’s smartness as a negotiator?

This is not my experience alone. I have a few musician friends whose skills are par excellence. Of such caliber they are that all that differentiates them from the big-ticket performers are their self-effacing nature and lack of network. I have often seen how they conceal their frustration of being artists pro bono yet continue to perform for free under the garb of creative satisfaction.

As a writer, every time I have mentioned to someone that my writing doesn’t bring me any money, I am advised by acquaintances and friends that I must continue to write regardless of low returns because it is my passion and one must not expect passion to be recompensed. Really?

The other odd argument that we writers and performers often face is that complimentary assignments get us visibility, which is vital to building a formidable portfolio for the future. I would like to stress again that visibility after a period of time becomes over-exposure, and it takes away from the distinction we have in our fields. Our portfolios are over-flowing with credentials, now we want our skills to help pay our bills too. Pure and simple.

We have been easily available for so long that our work is taken for granted and given a run-of-the-mill status. It is time that we held our own against the freebie-seekers and said that we would like to be paid for the following reasons.

First, our talent was not bequeathed to us by our ancestors. We have worked hard, spent years honing our skills to reach this point of proficiency.

Second, what we are expecting is not a compensation, but a reward for the value we add to others’ lives. If one can pay for a movie ticket for the entertainment it provides, what is stopping people from paying for the desirability of our work is beyond me.

Third, can working for free be accepted as a norm by everyone without exception? In that case, there will be no wages nor incentives, no payoffs nor profits. How bizarre that would be! Is the world ready to work for nothing?

As for those who have been living in the shadows of unrecompensed business, here is my word of advice. Learn to say ‘no’.

Your service is of utmost importance to the society, and this makes you deserving of due reciprocation. The kindness and praise that people show by words is humbling, indeed, but what will give your work its true honour is the reward it brings in kind. It makes your knowledge and capability unique. Anything acquired without paying for it is seldom treasured.

It is utter folly to think that asking for a reward will diminish your desirability or make you appear arrogant.

If you are convinced of the value you will add to people’s lives, if you are confident about your role in their lives as a purveyor of happiness, wisdom, pleasure and peace, then be sure that they acknowledge it by paying for it. Let people know in polite ways that you carry a price tag. Make sure you get a return on your intellectual and creative investment. It is a question of not only your professional worth, but also your bread and butter.

Of course, there will be occasions when your heart will prod you to give things away for free to those who deserve it, but it is an informed call you will take. You will decide by your discretion when to ask for credit and when to be charitable. Like the vegetable vendor who gave me the greens because of sheer good will and not by obligation.

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