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Stop Trying to Get Paid What You’re Worth

You and I have fallen under the sway of a misled idea: that in order to advance our careers, we must persuade people to recognize our worth and then convince them to pay it. When negotiating salary or figuring out what to charge for a service, the first question we often ask ourselves is: What am I worth?

But that question disempowers you.

It calls into question something personal that goes beyond the actual value of your skill or service. There’s also a dangerous connotation — particularly for women — that links price with love or acceptance. (“If you like me, you’ll pay what I’m asking. If you don’t, you must not like me because I’m not good enough.”) It’s a slippery slope and ineffective.

Instead of asking “what am I worth” or “am I getting paid for what I’m worth,” the question to ask is: “What are my products or services worth to this person right now?” In other words, what will the market bear?

For years I struggled to reconcile what I thought I was worth with what I was getting paid. At one point, all I wanted was $40K. I believed that was where I needed to be and that I was worth it (damn it). It killed me when the company told me they couldn’t do it. I went down the rabbit hole: Am I not worth that?

The magazine was in the red! They couldn’t pay the bills! It had nothing to do with me. And I needlessly made it harder on myself.

The turning point for me was a recent episode of my show Solopreneur. I interviewed Ilise Benun, founder of Marketing Mentor, who has been helping creative professionals go into business for themselves for more than two decades. “My clients always ask me, ‘Why can’t I convince people to pay me what I’m worth?’” says Benun. “This is the wrong question, because it sets this up as a pricing problem, which it isn’t. It’s a marketing problem, and it has a marketing solution.”

The key, says Benun is to separate what you do for other people from what it means about you. In other words, take your ego out of it. This blew my mind, and the doors off everything I used to think about rates and salary.

It was also a huge relief because I’ve spent too much time worrying that either I wasn’t worth much, or I was so good no one could afford me. “The conflation of personal worth with professional acumen is also very childish,” adds Benun. The “love me daddy” approach to winning business infantilizes you — it treats the proposal (or salary or raise) like an allowance, one that you “deserve” because you were a good girl. Ick.

Don’t use worth as a determiner of value or price. Your true worth doesn’t have a price, so stop wasting time trying to appraise it.

Want more? Watch this episode of #PowerLunch, my weekly webinar for entrepreneurs with an appetite, where I talk about when and how to work for free (and get something great out of it).

What You Learn by Being Lousy

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Watch me eat it. Go ahead. Click on it.

I went camping recently. I say that casually, as if it’s so normal for me, when it’s so not. But regardless, I went camping—legit slept in a tent, ate meat off a stick, the whole thing. I was with a big group of friends and on the agenda was a lot of boat-related activities: water sports in the morning, and chilling out on Lake Hopatcong on a pontoon in the afternoon.

I had concerns, most of which had to do with not being near land, and also I get very seasick.  Now, of course I know you can take something so you don’t get sick, and I do all of that, but I experience a pervasive unease at being in the water too long. Period.

I have a point in telling you this, and it’s not “what I did on my summer vacation.” It’s that what I learned from this one summer day is that I overestimate and underestimate what I can do, and it has to do with expertise vs. ability.

Here’s what happened

We piled into a motor boat with our salty, suntanned captain (who came with the boat), and were told we would be wake surfing—not tubing, as I’d expected. But it was basically: “Here’s a surfboard, here’s a rope, now hang on while we hit the gas pedal.” I’ve never been on a surfboard in my life, never surfed anything but the web. And let me tell you, it required far more skill than being yanked along on a rubber tube.

I first thought, “No way.” Then I watched as one friend after another got up and tried it and some of them did pretty good. Maybe it wasn’t so hard? I listened to our captain-slash-instructor go over the basics again and again: “Press down with the heels, bend your knees, engage your core, arms straight out, and let the boat pull you up.” I watched again and again, and thought, “I think I can do this.”

Wrong. Couldn’t have been more wrong. When it was finally my turn, I ate it so hard it’s laughable. I was shocked—didn’t I know after an hour and a half of watching and listening, how to do this? I knew it in my head, but when I got out there, it was as if that knowledge all went straight out the window. I had lake water up my nose, down my throat, and I had to swallow my pride along with it.

(Here’s the highlight reel of my epic wakeboard fail.)

I felt so…disappointed. But even that was silly—I had never been on a wake board in my damn life. Where on earth did I get the idea that I could just do it, first time out of the gate? My disappointment is what was so misguided–because that sense of disappointment came from this misled idea I had that I could do it, having never done it before. That’s not disappointment. That’s naivete! So now I was embarrassed over my disappointment over my failure. It was a big old downer sandwich.

My point is this

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as they say. And in an age of instant knowledge, youtube videos, and soundbite wisdom, we can be led to believe we’re expert in a thing before our feet ever touch the ground (or water, as it were). I’m guilty of this. And likely, so are you. We mistake information for expertise. And you only get expertise by doing and trying and failing and fixing.

When I started to complain about how bad I was, my friend Michael cut me off at the pass. “Are you serious?” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 9 years old. I was out there every day of the summer.”

And here I am, a grown woman, expecting that because I’m what—smart? attentive? fit?—that I’m supposed to kill it out of the gate? This is not a flaw of my physical abilities. This isn’t “Terri can’t do water sports” or whatever other story I wanted to tell. This is a flaw of misplaced confidence and misguided expectation.

As Grant Cardone says in his wildly popular book, Sell or Be Sold, the number one reason people hate anything, not just sales, is because they don’t know how to do it. I was tempted to say that I hate wake surfing. But that’s not true—I hate being bad at a thing. But give me a few hundred hours out there and I could imagine loving it. If we’re being honest, I will likely spend those hours on other things.

Oh God. All Day on a Boat?

Next up: Could I handle hanging out on a pontoon boat for several hours, given my extreme seasickness. Now, we weren’t out swordfishing on the high seas. Try trailing for sunfish and eating chips while listening to Bruno Mars. When I felt a whisper of nausea, I took a Pepto, and then laid on the deck while Lake Hopatcong rocked me to sleep. And when at one point we ran out of gas, and had to wait for someone to zip us some, I didn’t panic. I felt so unruffled, so calm. “This must be what relaxing feels like,” I thought before falling back asleep.

In fact, I was sad to get off at the end of the day! And back to—what?—my tent? Had I turned into a completely different person? In some ways, maybe yes. What a difference a day makes.

It’s been said that we overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can do in a year. I can’t nail a thing out of the gate perfectly, and likely, neither can you. But we’d all do well to realize that and get past it—and recognize that it’s normal. And chances are, we can hang out there longer than we think we can.

(If you like this, check out why you shouldn’t believe my Instagram feed.)

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Failure Is Brutal Even When It’s Small. So, Play Big.

I suffered dual blows recently: a minor physical injury, and major blow to my self esteem. And for a while, I wasn’t sure which was worse.

I pulled a tendon in my foot. Sure, it hurt like a railroad spike to the sole for a few days. I hobbled and mooned about, feeling sorry for myself. But the fact is, the body is magically self healing; self esteem is not. I don’t question the value of my foot because of this minor slip-up. The other, however, throws everything into question.

What Happened

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Take more risks, and you’ll have more failures, it’s good for you!

On Monday, I got a letter from the theater where I’ve been taking class for over a year. I’d applied for consideration to a higher-level class, which requires approval, as opposed to just a credit card. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I’d get in, but I felt pretty good about it, since the group of friends I met in Level 1 had been taking class, moving up through the levels together, having a great time. I had improved significantly, and had performed well in my last few shows. My two friends and I submitted our names and hoped for the best.

Instead, I got a letter of decline. I was told there were too many applicants, not enough spots. Which I believe, by the way. But what hurt was that my two friends had been accepted. Do I believe I’m so unspeakably bad and untalented I couldn’t get in? No. But still, someone had looked at the list of names and when they got to me, thought, “She can wait.”

No matter how you slice it, it hurts. What also didn’t help matters was that my blood sugar was dropping rapidly, and I was 15 minutes from being straight-up hangry. And in that moment, I turned to glass. I felt myself go rigid and sharp, dangerously fragile, as if, at any moment, I could shatter. Tears started in the corners of my eyes, like tiny shards.

So I was feeling particularly vulnerable as I walked into Home Depot moments later, but held it together long enough to weigh the pros and cons of 12v vs. 18v power drill. I went with the Milwaukee 12-Volt with two lithium batteries and a built-in light, in case I ever have to assemble IKEA furniture in the middle of a blackout.

Then I cried the whole way home. This wasn’t the first time I’d lost it on the streets and subways of Manhattan. But if you’re going to have a breakdown, this is the city to do it in: People don’t freak out or whisper or stare. They look at you, nod and give you your privacy. They’ve been there.

I knew this, too, was a minor letdown in the grand scheme, not a failure with a capital F. I had risked nothing (it’s not like I had publicly embarrassed myself), and lost nothing; I could and would try again. But this was fucking with my belief system.

Imposter Syndrome: Worst Fear Made Real

Like many women, I suffer from Imposter Syndrome, a lifelong condition in which you attribute any modicum of success to the fact that you’ve done a great job of fooling people.

And any failure, even the most small and insignificant can cause an IS flare-up, wherein this inner fiction becomes real: It’s true; I’m not good enough. I’ve been found out. The toxic power of even a smallish failure can call into question every compliment or encouraging word, questioning its authenticity and intent. I haven’t been lying to everyone else; they’ve been lying to me. 

This is the danger of seeing yourself as an on/off switch: You’re either good or bad, a success or a failure; you either have potential, or you’re a joke. It’s a lose/lose.

Will I get over it? Of course. I only have to look back to my freshman year, when I auditioned for the Boston College Dance Ensemble with a friend who was literally a prima ballerina (tip: Don’t stand next to a prima ballerina at a dance audition). She got in (duh); I didn’t. I cried for days, questioned whether I should dance at all.

Then, I got my ass into dance classes, re-auditioned, got accepted, and by senior year, I was the fucking director.

Years later, in my first year as an editor, I attended this big health expo, where you go and schmooze with the ad sales team and their clients. But word got back to me that the ad reps weren’t all too psyched to bring me around, and many didn’t. They weren’t sure how great of an asset I would be. I was mortified—and angry. I remember roaming the expo floor, nibbling samples of organic chocolate as I cried to my boyfriend on the phone. “One day they’ll beg me to go with them!” I swore.

And within a few short years, they were. I became an ad sales favorite. I was that good. Sometimes I turned them down.

Yeah, so, now what?

So here I am again: A newbie in another environment, where I have zero cred or experience. I chided myself at my response to this: Who did I think I was, waltzing in the door, assuming everything should come easy? 

I have a choice: Walk away, miffed and indignant, or I can keep learning, and taking the risk of doing a thing I don’t know if I’m any good at. Part of me thinks, maybe it’s a sign that this isn’t for me, that I should be doing something else. But that’s a loser mentality if you ask me, because it ascribes all responsibility for what I pursue to external forces. Not a fan of that.

The irony of all of this is that not a few hours before the letter came, I had been talking to a client of mine, women-in-business expert Bethany Williams, author of CEO of You, about failure, of all things. She was saying that it’s not whether you fail, but when. Failure is that path you take to get to where you want to be. No one who succeeds at anything ever got there by sidestepping failure. Those losses are a badge of honor.

“I don’t think I’ve had enough failures,” I said. Shit. I couldn’t win at losing, it seemed—I didn’t have enough badges yet.

“I’m going to guess that it’s because you haven’t taken enough risks,” said Bethany.

Maybe she’s right. If so, I have no other option in the face of failure, but to risk again. And again. And neither do you. Playing small doesn’t hurt less—and it gets us nowhere. So I might as well risk bigger. That’s what I’m going to do. And so should you.

(Read why you should get rejected more.)