Why we all should work for experience first, then money


Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash

This essay first appeared in This Singaporean Life (subscribe!), a newsletter I sent out every Sunday (SGT) where I share my weekly musings on work and life in Singapore.

No one would ever complain about having more money. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy many things that could indirectly or even directly lead to happiness.

But we all know the price of money – our time. No matter how we look at it, there’s no way you can earn money without sacrificing your time.

Even generating a passive income requires a lot of initial time investment. It’s hard to deny, though, that passive income is the best solution to having more time in the long run.

On the flip side, for most of us who don’t dabble in investments or have businesses of our own, we turn to taking up part-time jobs or freelance projects to earn some money on the side.

No one would ever complain about having more money, right?


I look out for such opportunities too, more so in the recent years. Part of the reason is to earn some extra money; the other part is to jump on the bandwagon.

After all, when I mention to friends about my recent side hustles, they tend to look at me in a different light. Now, don’t we all.

However, I started thinking: Should I take up any freelance opportunities that come my way as long as my time is compensated at a rate equal to or higher than if I were to work overtime at my full-time job?

For example, if I were to calculate my hourly pay at my full-time job (divide my salary by the number of hours I work every month) to be $X/hour, I should be getting $1.5X/hour or even $2X/hour from the side gig for it to be worth my while.

But I also asked myself: Do I value more money or more experience?


Now, you would ask: Does that mean I shouldn’t try to earn some extra income and just work for free, like how many entrepreneurs or successful businesspeople would quip?

I think the answer is nuanced and there’s a reason why working for free is increasingly a thing, especially among youths in their twenties.

I think all of us in our twenties shouldn’t sacrifice our time for just money. I think twentysomethings should work for both money and experience even if that means getting underpaid or work for just experience.

Why? Because in case you haven’t read Dr Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, research over the past few decades have consistently shown that everyone’s twenties are the most important years of our lives.

By the way, you should really read that book. If you’re not a book person, though, watch her 15-min TED talk instead.

Just because we’re starting work, marrying, having kids, and dying later, that doesn’t mean we have more time to waste before life officially starts for us.

In fact, Dr Jay argues we should – must – capitalise on the time and invest in “identity capital” – building the experience and skills that will pay dividends in the future and shape who we want to become from our thirties and beyond.

By working for money and experience or just experience, I might lose out on earning some extra cash now, but I’m readying myself for a breakthrough when an opportunity comes knocking on my door.


Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to find a side gig that pays well while offering valuable experience – far from that.

Let’s be real: most of us don’t have that kind of luck. Or the discipline and initiative to make full use of our free time to put in the work and hustle.

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Nevertheless, if you’re among the few who are willing to sacrifice some time off Netflix, YouTube, XBox, or any form of entertainment you indulge in, for a side hustle…

First, work for experience. Any monetary remuneration is a bonus. We all start somewhere, and those willing to put in the work will come out on top in the end. Here’s my favourite quote by Stephen King:

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

About the author

Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.

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by Vance Wong


Vance Wong

Brain-picker. Cinephile. Koreaboo.