Know Your Worth: If You've Got Skills, Stop Working for Free

Professionals who value what they're worth don't do favors for business associates. You want a favor? Go to a party.

Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin are veritable giants in the "chick-lit" genre. They're the co-authors of The Nanny Diaries, among other titles you've seen pop up in your Goodreads feed via that one girl from high school who reads 250 books a year. But like the good writers they are, Kraus and McLaughlin are more than just a pigeonholed pair. Their piece this week at Salon covers the breadth of their writerly endeavors and several of the major challenges they've faced to become the confident professionals they are today.

Most notable: Their focus on self-worth and assurance. Here's Kraus:

"One of the books from college that had the most influence on me was The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and the story within it about the daughter who ignores her mother’s advice — 'Know your worth' — at her peril.  So I entered the entertainment industry at 25 armed with the right mandate. How did it erode? Quickly."

When the pair's careers took off and Hollywood came calling, they were so grateful to be "in" that they began to acquiesce to requests for unpaid commissioned work: spec scripts, pilots, working for the rewrite fee, etc. The problem is that this behavior created a cycle of expectation. If you allow others the opportunity to exploit you, they're going to keep coming back to the well. This is an important lesson for people in almost any industry: Never sell yourself short.

"My confidence eroded. That’s the crime. When you don’t get paid for commissioned work, you start doubting your abilities and that makes it harder to sell the work you have to write on spec and pretty soon you’re behaving like Willy Loman.

I felt like I’d just spent 10 years in the backseat getting pawed. 'Come on,' the industry whines. 'All your friends are doing it.' And then, finally, when you try to push their hands away one too many times. 'You know, you’re lucky to even be here.'

I was lucky. I am lucky. I know that. But this is also my job."

The piece is a call to writers and other specialized, non-salary workers to take action and avoid falling into a cycle in which "employers" expect free work. Kraus and McLaughlin also do a good job covering some of the well-documented hurdles set up for women writers that Y-chromosome havers like myself don't have to leap.

Although they don't say it outright, Kraus and McLaughlin are advocating for the Lean In approach to negotiation. A major component of the gender-wage gap derives from the empirical fact that women don't negotiate their pay like men do, often due to legitimate fear of repercussions. As Claire Shipman told us a few months ago in the video below, authenticity and self-assurance can help bridge the confidence gap:

The key takeaway here is that if you write for a living, doing it for free will only hurt your stock. We can extend the lesson further: If your job relies on a specialized skill, make sure to protect that skill's value both in the marketplace and for yourself. We already live in a world where free labor in the form of "opportunity" internships has become commonplace. It'd be a tragedy to allow that culture to encroach any further.

Read more at Salon.

Photo credit: mactrunk / iStock

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