After my (mostly) positive first annual review as associate editor at a magazine, I was hoping—praying—that I would get a raise. I had taken a nearly $15,000 pay cut to take the editorial position, having come from a corporate copywriting job, and I was desperate to get back over the $40,000 hump.
When it looked like I might not get it, I went home and cried. I had gotten locked onto that number, believing that I was “worth” at least that amount. I assumed if I didn’t get it, then the company was saying that, no, I wasn’t worth it. The struggle, it turns out, had little to do with my value at all. The publication was in the red and couldn’t pay its bills.
Even though I got the raise, it was sold six months later. The thing is, my employer hadn’t decided that I was or wasn’t worth $40K.
That was a story I had made up. I had gotten locked onto the absolute value of that number and what it said about my worth. And here’s where I raise a red flag and wave it frantically: I think there’s a very dangerous tendency to link earnings with love or acceptance or, for that matter, worth. Ilise Benun, the founder of the service Marketing Mentor, explained to me on an episode of my podcast, Solopreneur, that this thinking is backward. Benun, who has dedicated her career to helping creative professionals launch their own businesses, says that her clients always ask, “How do I convince my clients to pay me what I’m worth?”
That’s the wrong question to ask, though. 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? If you are, like I was, a junior editor at the only national consumer magazine left in town, I wasn’t worth a zillion bucks because there were tons of people who wanted that job. Does my mother think I’m worth a zillion dollars? Of course. But my mother isn’t currently hiring. And likely, neither is yours.
Bottom line, says Benun? Take your ego out of it. Stop thinking there’s some innate “absolute value” that you must realize in salary to be validated. Because if you cling to that thinking, you’ll forever be questioning your true worth, which in fact has nothing to do with what you’re paid. Separate what someone can or will pay you with what that means about you.
Watch some of the world’s most powerful women share the best advice they’ve ever gotten:
This doesn’t mean that you just have to roll over and take a low salary or hourly rate. It means that now you can be in the business of figuring out what the jobs, roles and clients you’re considering are worth to you. Maybe it is worth it to take a lower-paying job for a while until you get your foot in the door, expand your network and prove your skills in a professional environment. That might be the price you have to pay to gain access to more opportunities. Writing gigs I would have jumped at years ago may not be worth it to me now—or they might be, depending on the opportunity. But which jobs I do has nothing to do with what I am worth and everything to do with what I decide is worth my time.
As you gain more experience and clout, yes, your value will likely go up because you’ll have crafted a unique and enviable skill set that companies and clients want. That’s the game: To cultivate, over time, the knowledge and finely honed abilities that put you in high demand. And then you won’t have to worry about what you’re “worth”—you’ll just name your price.
Terri Trespicio is a writer, editor and entrepreneur. She runs a boutique branding and content agency, where she works with individuals, startups and established brands to make their messages compelling across media platforms.