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How to Work for Free – and Why It Will Change Your Life

One of the most important decisions I ever made as a leader was to work for free.

Why would I do such a thing, you might wonder? Well, in most cases, it was because someone asked.

One such someone, for instance, was Bill Pauls, a friend, Hall of Fame businessman and the former chairman of Colorado UpLift. He simply asked me if I would help out with the organization, and I said, “yes.” Eventually I joined the board, and for the past seven years I’ve been the board’s chairman.

I don’t say yes to every request that comes my way, and sometimes I volunteer without being asked. But it’s harder to say yes to the organizations that never ask.

By saying yes to the right organizations, we grow as a person and as a leader. That’s because our involvement in work outside of our normal work strengthens our sense of empathy and selflessness and makes us better leaders. It gives us joy we can’t find in a paycheck, and it leads to an impact we can never fully measure. But none of that happens if we don’t make it happen.

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So how do we get more involved in work outside of our work? During a recent podcast with the leaders of Colorado Uplift, I landed on these three important steps:

Embrace Your Purpose

The first thing you’ve got to do is recognize we all thrive when pursuing a purpose in life. I address this in more detail in my forthcoming book, and several other authors have stressed it in recent years.

Daniel Pink, for instance, put this way in Drive: “The most deeply motivated people—not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied—hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”

We’re more than just a person who goes to work every day, and we’re better in our work and more at peace in our lives when we put others first and give of ourselves. You can find that type of purpose in your work, but recognizing your need for purpose also puts you in a better position to step out and serve in your community.

Don’t Wait on Perfection

Once you’ve acknowledged your need to serve, step in and do something. Anything. It may not be the right thing at first, but if you wait for perfection to take shape, you’ll be waiting forever. In the meantime, jump in when and where you can. If you look around and investigate the different organizations in your area, I promise it won’t take long for opportunities to arise. And when someone asks, say, “Yes” and see where it leads.

When I moved to Denver, for instance, I got involved with an organization that addressed homelessness. I liked the mission, but soon realized I only had a partial passion for what it was doing. I wanted to get more to the heart of it. Instead of providing housing, which is important, I wanted to see if we could eradicate homelessness by addressing a root cause. One way you do that is through education, which is a big reason I eventually landed at Colorado UpLift.

The more you get involved with worthy causes, the more likely you’ll find your path toward the things you most believe in and connect with. I believe deeply that one of the greatest opportunities we have in America is to change the trajectory of children in our inner city. With a growing economy and companies that are hungry to hire a more diverse workforce, the opportunities are there to create transformation. But too many students who could contribute to society end up being a drain on society.

UpLift has a mission of building long-term, life-changing relationships with urban youth. Its mentor/teachers work in schools to help teach kids how to lead with character and live a responsible life. Those are lessons I got from my parents, but many of these kids aren’t getting those same lessons at home. My passions for teaching leadership and character lessons to the next generation and my passion for helping inner city kids came together in the opportunity to serve with Colorado UpLift.

Play to Your Strengths

You want to find your fit when it comes to the mission of an organization, but you also want to find your fit within that organization. To do that, you have to be intentional about evaluating what you can offer. When I began asking myself what am I good at, for instance, I realized I couldn’t be a teacher/mentor with Colorado Uplift. I don’t have the right upbringing or right mentality. But I’ve learned through the years how to administrate and how to motivate people, so that’s been my primary role. It’s not my only role, of course. I do other tasks, sometimes mainly because I’m available rather than because I’m the best person for the job. That’s part of saying, “Yes.” But as much as possible, I want to play to my strengths.

Work, for many people, is so consuming that it leaves them with very little energy to do much more than go home and spend some precious quality time with family. That’s why it’s incumbent on top-level leadership to make service opportunities available and worker friendly. When I was a CEO, I not only worked for free (by volunteering), but I also advocated for policies that encouraged and freed up our employees to volunteer. Why? Because it’s an investment, not an expense. When you invest your time, talents, and treasure in worthwhile causes, you win. And when your entire organization makes that investment, the impact is multiplied throughout your company and your community.

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