I was recently invited to a discussion group where, amongst some heavy critique of certain business practices, came an intentionally light-hearted question ‘who gets involved in voluntary work these days?’
I noted how few people present said that they did. Variations on ‘I don’t get the time’ and ‘I don’t know what I could do / where I could do it’ were repeated around the room, until one participant said ‘I did once, but I felt I was being exploited. My time has a value, and I didn’t think I was getting enough in return’. This got me thinking about how I value my time.
As an employee I experienced two ways of spending my time – doing ‘work as work’, that is, as a way of earning my salary, and ‘leisure as leisure’, that is, spending my time maintaining and refreshing mind and body and building memories with those I hold dear. The value of time spent in the first category is easily calculated, but for the second, it’s less easy. Once an entrepreneur I noticed a different way in which I spent my time: ‘work as leisure’.
Let me explain. I realised that in fact I had been doing this all along, sitting on the committee of my local rugby club, organising fund-raising social events and coaching the kids’ teams, in other words, voluntary work. But as an entrepreneur the opportunities for ‘work as leisure’ increased greatly. I got passionate, almost obsessive, about ‘work’, the people I’d meet, the networking opportunities presented, discussions with potential collaborators, another great business idea, until I realised that I would happily spend much of my formerly leisure time attending, and increasingly helping out at, work-type functions or get-togethers for like-minded entrepreneurs where the subject of discussion was more work. I was maintaining and refreshing the skills and experience I had developed throughout my career, but the reward, as with my leisure time, came from the experience itself.
I then came to realise that, as an entrepreneur’s experience, and reputation, grows, he or she is asked more and more frequently to support such events, to attend and speak at conferences, to make introductions or create opportunities to bring people together to do business, and then to mentor other, often younger, entrepreneurs, and to sit on their advisory boards. My own one-time mentor exemplified that old entrepreneurs never retire – they just change the ratio of these three categories of time*. Now aged 94, Bill still does his ‘work as work’ daily, though nowadays its monitoring his investments, and his ‘leisure as leisure’, these days preferring to take tea and watch the world in the warmer weather of Monaco rather than Brussels. But he also travels for conferences whenever the location makes the journey worthwhile, he still attends advisory boards, and he still advises me, and others like me, by telephone and email, enjoying his ‘work as leisure’ whenever he feels he can contribute. And his reward is only that it keeps him mentally sharp and he continues to be, and to feel, valued.
I contrast this with those who see these sorts of activities as ‘work as work’, and demand a fee or ‘a small retainer’ in return. They might, for a short time, offer to do such activities without charge, but this is by way of an investment, part of their personal marketing efforts, in the expectation that they will get a bigger financial reward in the future. In its extreme form, this is exemplified by those ‘mentors’ circling like sharks around young entrepreneurs, offering introductions, and business planning advice, and then the offering the finance to meet these plans, but always in exchange for a hefty slice of the future business of the young start-up ‘investment vehicle’.
People who value their own time only in the monetary terms miss the opportunity for rewards in the alternative currencies of leisure time experienced by volunteers – a feeling of achievement, a sense of fun, a shared experience, a memory built, a friendship made, a smile, gratitude, thanks.
Of course you’ve to choose your currency according to your needs. I was once watching a street entertainer approach the grand finale of his act, and as part of the build up he explained, to me and to the other 200 or so in the crowd he’d attracted, “at the end of the act I will pass round a hat [pause] I would like you all to please put in some money [pause], preferably quiet money […laugh]. No doubt you will all applaud, and I will appreciate that applause [pause], but I do have to live [pause], and my landlord wouldn’t like it if I said to him at the end of the month ”thank you landlord, great place, I really enjoyed it’’ and offered him a round of applause” [laugh]. Coincidentally, I saw the same act at Covent Garden in London and again a year or so later outside Sydney Opera House – clearly audiences had got the message.
So yes, everyone should value their time, but take a good look at the exchange rate between the many different currencies of reward. They move as we grow, as we become successful, and as we gain experience, and as the needs of those we hold dear change with time. Look out for when your euro / dollar / pound account has reached ‘sufficient’ (a very personal level I wouldn’t attempt to define for others) and look at the other currencies you can work in. Volunteer today – it is a lucky man indeed who is rich in the currency of goodwill
[*If you’re curious, I think on a weekly average,my own time spent on Work as Work, Leisure as Leisure and Work as Leisure has been more or less: 5,2,0 in my 20s; 6,1,0 in my 30s; 5,1,1 in my early 40s and now 4,1,2 as I approach my 50s. I’m taking assignments and planning activities aiming for 3,1,3 in my 60s and 2,2,3 in my 70s. Whether Bill has planned to be a ‘1,3,3,’ in his 90s I don’t know, but it would appear that he’s doing well on it]