The Payoff (and Price) of Working for Free

I’ve been on YouTube for about six months. I’ve owned this blog for about the same amount of time, though I didn’t take it too seriously until recently. If you look at all my content, you’ll notice a shift in focus (and, hopefully, an improvement in quality) as of about two months ago.

I’m a newbie. I’m new to this. I’m green.

In this time, I’ve been working on my skills with the DSLR and putting most of my energy into creating (rather than networking, which was starting to get a bit exhausting). Yes, eyeballs are important, but my priority has become giving you something to look at first.

Attention comes later.

Creating comes first.

But creating is difficult. Creating takes time.

And for a long time to come, most of what I create is going to be subpar. Half-baked. Getting there. Maybe even showing a bit of raw talent (if I’m lucky).

But it’s not going to be professional – it’s going to be progressional (it’s a word now).

And in the meantime, I need all the practice I can get, because to get good at something, you have to do it over and over again. Continuously. With heavy attention to detail and improvement and process.

Some people go to school to learn how to do things. The rest of us have to teach ourselves. I learn by doing – doing a lot.

That’s why I write two posts a week. That’s why I make three new videos a week. Because I’m hoping that eventually, given a couple years (and thus a couple hundred posts and several hundred videos), I’ll finally be creating things so beautiful and life-changing that I’ll achieve lift-off.

Blogging is a marathon – not because it’s so difficult to get noticed, but because it’s so difficult to create content that’s worth noticing.

And I know a lot of small YouTubers will hate me for saying that, but it’s true, and it’s time we admit it.

Extra Credit

I’ve always been an overachiever. I was always the kid who had a 98% in the class, but still did the extra credit, just in case. If I’m engaged, I want to know everything. I want to be the best. I want to do great things and do them incredibly well.

But I only have so many ideas for what I want to create, so sometimes, even though I want to write something or make a video, I have no idea what to do. I brainstorm, and I’ve written about how to come up with ideas before, but even I have my limits.

So I say yes to things.

I say yes to a lot of things.

I read over blogging groups on Facebook looking for guest posting opportunities. I join in nearly every group collaboration video I see on Twitter chats and Google+ communities. I agree to take graduation portraits for friends. I join the You Can’t Stop Me project as the producer. I become the official blogger for Rock to Cure Cancer. I design flyers for events at Sidewinders Bar.

Graduation portrait shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Plus, free portraits are just a good graduation present.

And in doing so, I get to create things other people have dreamed up. I make friends and connections along the way. I get links back to my blog and my channel. I work based on other peoples’ instructions for me. I push my creative boundaries to realize someone else’s dream. I get feedback – meaningful feedback – when I miss the mark, which is not something that happens to smaller creators. We’re all so freaking supportive and friendly and helpful that nobody wants to be critical, ever, even when something is terrible.

I get to shift my mindset from, “this is okay, right?” to “tear this apart and tell me how to do it better.”

'70s Disco Flyer Tea Dance

For example, this flyer went through 4 drafts (and 8 peoples’ feedback) before this final version.

It’s like going to design school, except I don’t have to pay for it, and I only have to take on projects I have an active interest in.

It’s great! Except…

I’m $51,000 in debt

Let me tell you a story about the hefty price tag of sunshine and poor life choices.

Instagram post of me staring at the city lights.

Then they snapped this photo of me looking pensive and ominous.

I’m standing in a dark parking lot at the edge of the Sandia Mountains, somewhere at the end of Candelaria Boulevard in Albuquerque, with three of the coolest people I’ve met since I moved to Albuquerque. They’re talking about god knows what, while I watch the city lights, lost in some self-defeating thought (I can’t remember the specifics – two shots, a beer, and an adios did a pretty good job of erasing this moment from my mind shortly after).

I had convinced myself that all I need to do is continue to tread water – keep myself living indoors, make the minimum payments on my bills – long enough for my blog, my channel, essentially my life, to take off and really sprout. I had convinced myself that I was fine. And then, one fateful night when I had nothing better to do, I checked my account statements. I did the math.

[insert sound of record scratch]

I owe $51,000 – $51,299 to be exact. That breaks down to $20,320 for my car, $18,089 for my student loans, and $12,890 in credit card debt. Is it possible to be completely unsurprised and yet so disappointed?

Now: Go Big or Go Broke

I figure there are two ways I can handle this.

I can either drop everything I’m doing (or at least scale it back wildly), rejoin the “real world” by getting a second job (or one that pays much better than the one I have now), and focus on paying all that down.


I can keep at what I’m doing, be thankful that I’m already six months into the process, and look forward to what life will look like a few years from now, if I continue to do what I’m doing, keep improving, and eventually get super-lucky. Like content-skyrocketing-to-fame lucky. Because $51,000 is a lot of money to owe, and that’s not getting any smaller at the moment.

I don’t know what my life is going to look like a year from now, or two years from now, and I’m kind of thankful for that, because it’s the only way I’m keeping myself motivated right now. The mystery – the “what if,” the possibility, the potential – is what drives some people insane, but I think it’s the only thing keeping me from losing my mind right now. Hanging onto the dream is how I’m going to stay the course. This is how I’m going to survive. This is what keeps me from dropping my projects and calling it quits. It’s what keeps me from walking out of my horrible job. Because I hope that someday my sunny outlook won’t take so much effort to uphold.

That’s why I’m going to keep working for free, and putting in the hours, blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to become an excellent creator. Because it will be worth it, one day.

And I hope to see each and every one of you here by my side when I finally do reach the point.

You’re all beautiful. Subscribe if you haven’t already. I love you all.

5 comments on “The Payoff (and Price) of Working for Free”

  1. Patrick Cleary Reply

    I will say one thing, as an older guy who has gone through one foreclosure and had to pay off $65,000 in debt to get back to zero. It’s not an either-or with money. You can pursue your interests and find a better-paying job, even a job in the thing you’re passionate about, but to think of debt as something you need to not focus on, it will get larger, and one small emergency can throw you off for years and years. Don’t give up on what you truly want to do, but make debt elimination a priority, and savings as high a priority as you can. Because years fly by, and the time to save goes away, and the anchor of debt becomes heavier every day that you have it. Sorry if this sounds defeatist, but the one piece of advice I’d tell my younger self would be to alway pay off my credit card balance every month and save at least 5% of every paycheck every week, because something will happen that requires credit and/or money, and that’s something you can’t get through willpower alone.

    • Michael Noker Reply

      It’s not so much about willpower as it is about reminding myself that I’m not going to be making $12.75 an hour in a job that makes me want to slit my throat forever. I’ve tried applying for other jobs – and I’ve networked my ass off here – but Albuquerque’s job market is absolutely pitiful, and the kind of work I want to do doesn’t exist (at least not at large firms) here, so I have to make my own opportunities first. That’s what I’m focusing on. Creating opportunities where they don’t exist.

      • Patrick Cleary Reply

        That 100% makes sense. If you don’t think it’d be too weird, I can see if a coworker of mine would have an informational chat with you about social media jobs. She is based in Chicago, but is networked all over.

  2. Michelle Reply

    I am cheering for you!! I really do love your blog, you’re a fantastic writer and you have what it takes to make it. Like you said, just gotta learn and hustle until you get to your goal. And money – I’m about the same amount in debt. I have a plan to pay it off and I execute that plan every month, so I’m not worried about it. It will take longer than I want to pay it off, but I know within 5 years, I’ll be debt free (if I don’t add any new debt lol).

    I was in debt years ago, and paid it all off… so it’s possible. And it doesn’t matter what your job is. Well, it does, obviously, for how fast you can pay it back. But money is not happiness. If working on your blog and building that dream makes you happy, do that. Life’s too short to fret over money. A bit, yeah, that’s natural, but don’t let it rule your life. Let your dreams rule your life.

    And I’m already subscribed 😉

    • Michael Noker Reply

      Ahaha. I finally sat down with ReadyForZero and charted my path to freedom. It looks like it’ll be about 8 years before I’m debt free, but that’s on my current income (which is very, very low, and surely will be doubled well before then). It’s not terrible, as long as I stick to the plan, which I’ve done successfully for an entire week now. One week down, 415 to go!

Leave a Reply