Most of us, at the beginning of our careers, enter into the tacit agreement that we must “pay our dues” -- that one must work hard, often for little to no compensation, or even take jobs we may not necessarily like in exchange for experience. The hope then, is that all this hard work and experience will pay off in the form of success: financial security, prestige, or the privilege to make a living doing what you love. While it’s true that commitment and hard work can yield many rewards, we also live in a society that tends to celebrate hard work to the point of self-sacrifice. It is true that we do indeed have to make sacrifices along the way—give up some things in order to gain others, but when are you sacrificing too much? Is what you are sacrificing working for you? And do you find yourself valuing hard work more than you are valuing yourself?
Cultivating and maintaining healthy work relationships is just as important as having healthy personal relationships. This is not always easy to do as employers will typically set the tone for their work environment, leaving employees at the mercy of existing office culture. A toxic work environment can lead to mental and physical burnout from feeling high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. Some things I encourage clients to be aware of in their work environments are: how does your boss motivate? Does he/she encourage growth or competition? Does he/she harass or bully you or other coworkers? Is abuse present? Is there clear communication between all employers, employees and clients, or do you find yourself expected to fulfill unrealistic and unspoken demands, repeatedly setting you up for failure?
Too often, people wanting to work creatively feel as if they must accept jobs that cause them to feel uncomfortable, or even fill them with dread because they are inexperienced. After all, how many times have you heard, “Many people would KILL for this opportunity”? For this reason it can be difficult to say 'No'. When we are brave enough to say no to harmful people and environments, however, we then create space for healthier, nourishing opportunities and relationships. Ultimately, feeling appreciated and supported frees us to thrive in our creative work. Finding your tribe will be important as you continue to progress in your career as it is vital for all of us to have people in our lives who will reflect back our inherent worth and encourage growth. No one should have to feel taken advantage of, abused or humiliated at their job, no matter their level of experience.
Working for Free
Taking a work opportunity that doesn’t pay in exchange for the experience can be a bit tricky to navigate. Think about it from this perspective: if I continually say yes to low or no paying jobs, what message might this communicate to others about my value? How might I feel about my own worth if I settle for less than I need or deserve? Might I develop a reputation as someone who undervalues herself? Chances are, if I don’t value myself, nobody else will either. It is up to me to decide and communicate my own worth. Now, maybe you want to work for free because you are helping out friends with a project, or you want to volunteer for a cause you are passionate about, or perhaps you are looking to gain a very specific skill set or connection from an opportunity -- awesome!
These can all be great reasons to give a project your energy, as long as they are coming from a place of clarity and intention. Being transparent with yourself on why you are choosing to devote time and energy on a particular venture helps you connect to your values. I encourage you to gain clarity with yourself on why and where you choose to spend your energy and time and how it might benefit you, in the short or long term.
Saying yes to one opportunity means we are simultaneously saying no to something else. If I choose a job with a 60-hour work week, do I know what I am giving up? Does it mean I lose time which could be spent with family or friends, for example? Is this ok with me? Or maybe choosing to take a job I’m excited about with very little pay means I have to work a second job to make ends meet. Is this worth it? For some the answer might be yes, for others, no. Knowing your priorities becomes an invaluable tool -- a personal roadmap for making these kinds of decisions.
An unfortunate reality is that many creative people just starting out form professional connections with others who undervalue, or even try to take advantage of their inexperience. If you feel something might be off -- listen to your gut. Maybe the company you interview with has an impressive, fancy office, but are unwilling to pay you a decent wage. Or perhaps a potential boss’s work ethics are not in alignment with your own.
Looking at the business side of things, are you getting what you need in writing? Contracts for agreed upon fees? Does it include breaks? Does your representative (re: agent/manager) help to ensure you are being protected -- making sure you are getting paid and in a timely fashion, providing a lawyer if needed, etc.?
We can't always assume that others will treat us fairly and with respect. Each of us are responsible for setting our boundaries, determining our worth, and living in accordance with our values and purpose. Perhaps, learning to protect oneself, knowing one’s worth and saying ‘no’ to toxic work environments/relationships is one of the most important experiences a beginning creative will gain in her development as a professional. Remember: at the end of the day, you are providing a service: your skill and talent. Your rent won’t get paid on simply loving your job alone and kudos don’t pay the bills.