What Would You Do For Free?

by | Feb 14, 2021 | Career Advice, Musings

“What Would You Do For Free?” Back in early 2012, I met with a mentee who first came to me through a referral from a friend in HR. When I first met “Jane”, she was waiting for me in a conference room. She was half under a table. Don’t get me wrong – she was sitting in a chair, however, she was slumped down low, her body language telling me everything I needed to know.

I asked her to tell me a little about herself and what work she was doing in her role. She said she was an engineer and one of her first comments was “I think I studied the wrong subject in school, I am not sure I should be an engineer.” Wow. Powerful statement. She was questioning everything – even her decision to study engineering. For about the next 15 minutes, I listened as she told me all the things she didn’t like about her job and I probed to find out why she had made such a powerful declaration. I let her go on for a while. When she took a breath, I stopped her. I asked her to take all of the negative, unhappy, unhealthy energy she had just unleashed and put it in a box and slide it under our table and out of sight. She gave me a questioning look and then I asked her to shift gears and tell me what she did like to do. After a long pause and some uncomfortable silence, I knew she was stumped. She had been so focused on what made her unhappy, she had lost sight of figuring out what would make her happy. We discussed the importance of self-discovery and I asked her to do some journaling. Before we met again, I wanted her to think about “What would I do for free?” and write down whatever popped into her head. She took on the challenge and left.

 About a month later, her name showed up in my e-mail with a calendar request. I was happy to meet with her and hear what she had been thinking about. This time she was waiting for me, standing in the doorway of the conference room. Her eyes were bright and I could feel her shift in energy and excitement. She told me that she had found time on an airplane ride/business trip to journal. She shared the beginning of her notes.

 “What would I do for free?” 




Talk to Joe (the owner) of the Ski Shop

Discuss how his current software is not working for his needs

Work to develop a better software solution for Joe and the Ski shop

…many more pages of words….followed by “HFE!!!!”

 I asked Jane – ‘what is HFE?’ and she went on to explain Human Factors Engineering to me. Her eyes were wide open, she was sitting up straight and leaning toward me across the table. I could feel the energy and passion in her voice. She then asked, “what do I do with this knowledge?” My reply was  “it’s time for Networking!” I jumped online and looked at my network and picked six people I thought could help us find a Human Factors Engineer. I shot off an e-mail and asked for willing technical mentors. We continued talking about other things she could do while we waited for responses.

To make a long story short – I eventually gave Jane three names. She called each of them and set up a time to talk. Two of those conversations turned into offers of temporary assignments. However, it wasn’t the first person she spoke to that offered her the temporary assignment. She actually started with the name I gave her and then spoke to four more people before the opportunity she wanted came to light.  Jane would say you may need to talk to a few (or many) different people to get to where you want to be. I would tell you that it’s like pulling a chain of scarves out of the sleeve of the magician. The first contact leads to another one that then may lead to two more. You have to keep ‘pulling the scarves’ to find the ‘bouquet’ at the end.

 Jane went back to her manager and asked him for some leeway to explore the possibilities in a new role. He was fabulous – understanding and supportive. He gave her one day off a week to pursue her newfound interest. He understood she was still working for the same company, so why not let her grow a new skill? She took one of the offered assignments. One day a week she went over to a different building to work on the project they had carved out for her. Her excitement grew. She went back to her regular job and brought new energy and excitement with her. She tackled her existing role with a new appreciation of the learning experiences she was getting from the temporary assignment. She got her previous 40 hours of work done in 32 hours and was more efficient, effective, and appreciative of what she was doing.

Flash forward to April 2012 – Jane sat with me again. A HUGE grin on her face and a warm hug preceded her announcement that she had been offered and accepted a full-time position in the new group. She wanted to thank me for the help and guidance I gave her. I told her she had done the hard part – I just provided the map and acted as a sounding board and gave her access to my network (the primary role of a mentor). I only asked that she ‘pay it forward’ by exiting her current role gracefully, and by mentoring others with what she had learned.

 After celebrating her upcoming transition we spoke about the next steps. Jane is off writing her transition plan to ensure nothing gets dropped as she leaves, ensuring her current manager gets recognized for his risk-taking and support of her growth and development, and planning out her deliverables for success in her new role.

 How well do you know and understand yourself? Are you unhappy with your work? Do you wish you were excited and passionate about what you do? Who is your mentor? How big is your network?

 It may all start with the answer to a disarmingly simple question. “What would you do for free?”

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