Never Do it For Free, If It’s a Valuable Skill (not even for your friends).

I call this the Dark Knight Joker Principle

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Stories are what we use to make sense of the world and our place in it. So, I’ll tell you a story.

I was having a conversation with a friend, negotiating the price per original creative writing piece that I was to edit for him. These were parts of a whole that he will eventually publish into a single book. He naturally decided that he should bring up the fact that we are “homeboys,” and that I should be doing this for no price at all. Now, he’s absolutely right. We are homeboys. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding here; the idea of free and unfettered access to the talents, specialties, and labor of friends and loved ones.

I understand that favors are often done with the expectation that beneficiaries will reciprocate favors of similar magnitude, within the context of what they are able to provide, considering it’s even useful to the prospective beneficiary. The problem with that is twofold: (1) “unspoken agreements” are a misnomer. No one is compelled to deliver on something they neither agreed to, nor verbally declared. (2) There are too many variables to expect that there’ll be an even exchange of value over a given period of time.

I proceeded to present my homeboy with a question: If he and friend #2 came to me, both with papers to be edited, and he offered money for my services, which paper does he think I would work on first? If both of them simply wanted me to just read and provide hours of intellectual labor to improve their work at no benefit to myself, it’s reasonable to expect that as friends of mine, I would do it for them. However, it is NOT reasonable to assume that I would do it with enthusiasm.

From there, the “P” word creeps in (hint-hint…it starts with “pro” and ends with “crastination”). Why work on your paper, when I can clearly be playing video games, shopping, doing the complete opposite of working on your paper, having a conversation with a friend about climate change, going out for sushi, or watching the Rush Hour trilogy?

You see, money helps us scale and protect our time. In other words, it tells people that we value our time and the strengths/talents utilized during that time, thereby requiring a form of compensation. If they agree with the valuation of our time and talents, the way they demonstrate that is by agreeing to the terms and conditions of our compensation; whether it’s through currency, a favor, or a tangible good/service in return.

Upon giving the analogy and explaining further, my friend agreed. Now of course, we discussed the “homeboy discount.” Ultimately, he will only bring me work that he is serious about. In turn, it means he won’t bring too much too often, because it will cost him financially, which also protects my time.

The Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, once quipped, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” So for the benefit of nomenclature, we will call this the Dark Knight Joker Principle. It’s important to have sufficient self-awareness to know your strengths, and it’s equally important to be able to monetize those strengths in the event that they are summoned by others, to include your friends.

One of the key reasons people leave money on the table is that they don’t believe it’s morally right or socially acceptable to charge friends or family. I say that’s a feckless philosophy. The level of access we have to increasing our income, is primarily based on how we think about money and ourselves in relation to it; in other words, we tell ourselves bad stories. One thing about friends and family is that it’s easier for them to underappreciate you than a stranger, because we take for granted the things and the people which are consistently in our lives. We become habituated to them. Ironically—and surprisingly, your friends and family are likely open to compensating you for whatever valuable services you are able to provide. Now, let’s be fair; it doesn’t mean this principle will always be well-received, at least initially. And it doesn’t mean that it’s applicable in EVERY case. But it’s important to have that conversation, and stand by that principle.

I often find that it’s not simply the message that gets rejected, but its framing and delivery. No mature human being in this world genuinely believes that a valuable skill you possess doesn’t deserve some sort of compensation. Not one. Of course, exceptions can be made, and how you do that is entirely up to you. But do it with deliberation, strategy, and rational self-interest.

Let’s revisit the question I posed to my friend. Had neither him nor friend #2 offered me money, I may never have gotten to it. OR…I may have done it six months down the road, with enough pestering on their part. In compensating me, not only do they show that they take me seriously, but they’ve turned their requests into jobs, and shown their appreciation for my friendship. And in turning them into jobs, a number of things come into play. Money is a motivating factor for obvious reasons (more options, more access to goods and services, and security). But now, a reputation is on the line, or the opportunity to build one has been given.

When money is involved, I naturally draw motivation, because I want to do a good job; and I want to do a good job, because I want my client to keep returning, because I want to keep making money. This is okay to think, to say, and to do. And of course it’s not with just your friends and family, but with everyone else. But I use friends because naturally, the Dark Knight Joker Principle is jeopardized when dealing with those we know and love because we don’t want to upset them or be frowned upon.

But I argue that it’s the best alternative. Instead of a situation where a request or favor gets left on the wayside, or accomplished with mediocrity because the benefit is one-sided, we instead have a transaction of value that benefits both sides. And because both sides benefit, the desire to continue similar transactions in the future, if both parties are satisfied with the arrangement and results, has staying power. This means those skills are applied in a timely and fervent manner, and each party feels fairly bestowed.

On the other hand, finding yourself consistently providing valuable, time-consuming, and exhaustive services for free can leave you resentful, which can cause a number of problems for the relationships in question. Because you know that deep down, you deserve to be compensated for what you are providing. And if you are providing said service without having this conversation, simply because you have a misguided sense of loyalty and guilt, and thereby refuse to charge, you are not doing yourself or your relationships any favors. Those who value their relationships put the boundaries and mechanisms in place to protect them from things such as bitterness, exploitation, resentment, etc. And one of the ways they do that is being honest and clear about what they feel, want, and deserve.

If you don’t know how to frame the conversation, let me provide you with a sample. If a friend (or family member) invokes a particular excellent (or above-average) skill of yours for their service, say something like: “[Insert name or moniker], this type of work requires a lot of time and effort, attention to detail, etc. I want to do the best work for you, but I also have other things going on. So this isn’t something I think I can do for free, or at least be motivated to do to the best of my ability for you, if I did it for free. So, I would like for us to talk about compensation. I think that would be best.

It’s not easy to start doing this. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you become with it. And so there you have it. If you love your friends, charge them. You’d be crazy not to. And by this standard, most people are crazy.

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