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Get paid without guilt: 6 lessons I’ve learned

We’ve been holding the Simplify to Amplify Roundtable monthly for several months now, and I’ve fielded many burning questions about creative business, from how to answer the dreaded “what do you do?” question, to how to improve sales.

But one of the most painful and pressing questions I get every single time comes down to something like, “How can I justify charging ‘a lot’ of money?”

I put “a lot” in scare quotes, because “a lot” could mean $25 to one person and $25,000 to another. The number doesn’t matter. It’s whatever number makes your insides clench up when you think about asking someone to pay you that amount.

Sometimes the focus of the question is on the fear that others won’t pay a given price, like this one that came in last time,

“How do I price my coaching to appeal to a mid to lower income demographic when they might see the expense as a luxury?”

Sometimes the focus is on self-doubt, as in this one:

“How do you figure out the ‘value you provide’ and what to charge for it? Especially when some days you might feel like the work you do is priceless, and other days like you should be giving services away like you’re a charity?”

Very often, the question reflects a desire to keep services accessible or to serve a group who are chronically under-resourced.

“How can I not feel bad about charging realistic prices that ‘feel’ too high?”

All of these questions have an underlying vibration of fear and guilt about asking to be paid for our work.

“Can I find non-icky ways to convert my generosity to income, however indirectly? Generosity is comfortable; asking for payment/money is not!”

Before we move on from this moment and talk about why fear and guilt rule the pricing discussion, let me just ask one framing question: When was the last time a plumber felt guilty about billing you for their work? No shade on plumbers. I truly appreciate what they do for us. But no one questions that they deserve to make a living with their skills.

Your self-doubt and fear about pricing and selling isn’t coming from nowhere

What makes it different with writers, artists, coaches, teachers, and other creatives? Because it is different—not just emotionally speaking, but in what we learn and hear from our friends, family, and the outside world. All those pervasive, corrosive stories we marinate in.

I was talking to a client recently who reported that when she shared her (amazing) visual art (that she makes on commission for clients) with another artist, he tried to shame her by saying something like, “Why can’t some things just not be for sale?”

Nice.

Especially ‘nice’ coming from a tenured faculty member. Easy for him to say.

But it triggered all kinds of self-doubt in my client, because that’s an old story she’s heard far too many times.

The Narrative goes something like this:
  • If you’re truly an artist, you’re following your passion.

    If you believe in your work, making it accessible to all is paramount. The passion for your work will sustain you. You’ll work hard, but it won’t feel like work. ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ (This is where the guilt about charging prices that have a shot at sustaining you and your family comes from.)
  • If you’re really any good, you’ll get ‘discovered’ and money will happen without you getting involved in filthy commerce.

    Gatekeepers will discover you, cause your career to ‘happen,’ and you won’t have to learn any of the skills of running a business. You will be kept in style by elite professionals who will interface with the rich people who will fund you, so that somehow, you’ll also continue to be working purely for love and providing access to all. (This is where the disgust for making any effort to get your work seen by interested audiences—AKA marketing—comes from.)
  • If you don’t magically make sufficient money that you can live off your art, then you’re probably not talented enough/not working hard enough.

    And so, the only way to solve this “problem” is to keep working your ass off while humbly not asking to be paid for your work. (This is where the deep well of self-doubt comes from. If you’re not being recognized and paid, it must be for a good reason, right??)

Notice that the logic is circular? Closed? Notice that all of these beliefs invite victim-blaming and gaslighting?

Andrew Simonet, choreographer and author of Making Your Life as an Artist writes a cranky yet inspiring newsletter for artists (that I’ve mentioned here before). One recent missive was titled, “stop telling me I’m doing what I love,” and offered this funny anecdote,

“It became a joke in my dance company. Loading out a show in the rain at 1:00 am: ‘Doing what we love, y’all!’”

So, no. It’s not just you.

The pressure and shaming are rampant. Let’s be real. This is what is expected from creatives, artists, and writers, as well as caregivers like teachers, therapists, nurses, and coaches. And mothers. And basically anyone socialized as female. And also lots of men who are put off by the whole toxic “alpha” thing.

  • You work for whatever crumbs get tossed your way (or for free)
  • You shy away from discussing money
  • You avoid the entire range of skills that would allow you to handle the financial side of your creative business better
  • You work ever harder to try to escape financial scarcity and to gain recognition for your work—without the ONE tool that would make it all actually possible: sustainable pricing…

That’s the myth of the Starving Artist.

He starves because he won’t pander to the market (aka ask to be paid). He toils ceaselessly in his unheated garret, but eventually his brilliance is discovered, and he becomes a legend. Unfortunately, by then, he’s often already dead.

Well, it was worth it. The world can now appreciate his work (and of course make mega-bucks selling it) and he stayed pure.

Well, screw that noise.

6 lessons I’ve learned that have helped me charge fairly for my work.

  1. Don’t sacrifice your agency to gatekeepers or toxic myths that seek to control you.

    Relish every opportunity you get to make decisions and take action. Intentional, conscious decision-making acknowledges that the vast majority of our lives are not under our control: We are born into the family we get. We are citizens of some country or another. Some version of capitalism is the economic system almost anyone reading this article lives under.

    Also, by the way, time exists and we do not have an opt-out for that either. Ironically, all these huge factors we can’t control just make taking responsibility for the things we can all the more important.
  2. Reject self-exploitation.

    Just as capitalists often exploit their workers, we can exploit ourselves by undercharging and then leaning on our workers (i.e. ourselves) to increase productivity to fill the gap (i.e. working your butt off until you pass out). That’s what sweatshops do. But that’s also what small businesses do, to themselves.

    I’ve learned that undervaluing my work not only harms me but also perpetuates a system of exploitation. It’s crucial to set fair prices that reflect the value we provide and respect our capacity to work and our need to rest.
  3. Value your work as work.

    Creative and knowledge work is work as much as plumbing is. It deserves to be treated as such. I believe that I deserve a living wage, financial security, and the ability to provide for my family through the value my work provides. It’s essential to shift your perspective and view creative work as valuable. How? Well…
  4. Articulate your work’s value.

    Too many small business owners don’t have much of an answer for the crucial question, why buy from you? A compelling answer to that question is key to cleanly and clearly ask to get paid. Ask your customers and clients what they love about your work. Talk to people who need the kind of thing you do about what attracts them to it. Research what people have said about other work that’s similar to yours. Why do they need it? What do they get from it?

    Put all that together into a powerful statement of why your work is of value to specific people for specific reasons. (Then, by the way, you have to tell those people about it.)
  5. Equitable does not mean “cheap.”

    We all want to make our work accessible to those, like us, who are under-resourced. But if you can’t pay your bills without jamming in more and more work, if you risk damaging your health, if you can’t afford to take time off to recharge and rest? You can’t show up for others. You’ll burn out, and then your work stops being available to anyone at any price. No good. Put your own seatbelt on first.

    It’s often the case that very small businesses can’t afford to have low prices. That’s not an ethical conflict. That’s just reality. Think of the work you do cheaply or free as philanthropy. How much can you afford to give before it is hurtful to you? There are ways to give in balance with making a good living: Free online group events, inexpensive ebooks, public exhibitions. Charge wealthier clients higher prices to fund scholarships and sliding scale pricing for those who may not be able to afford your work. But you can only afford to spend time on giving when you know you and your family are secure.
  6. The way to creative freedom is through financial freedom…however you get there.

    To me, creative freedom means having the space to make decisions without regard to the impact it will have on my financial security. So, maybe don’t monetize everything.

    And on the flip side, that means you have to get paid enough for whatever you DO do for a living that you can carve out time for your own non-monetized explorations (and that includes day jobs of all kinds).

    As Oliver Burkeman put it in his book, 4000 Weeks, “One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit.”

Being paid fairly for work you’re actually doing doesn’t make you a dirty capitalist

Many people I talk to worry that asking to be paid makes them a “capitalist,” AKA evil exploiter. I think this reflects a misunderstanding of what capitalism is and isn’t.

I’m not an expert, but with my limited knowledge, here’s the short version: Capitalism is a system where the owners of assets (capital) extract excess value from workers via paying them less than their work is worth on the market and pocketing the difference. (Or, as capitalists would put it, in a more positive light: using the difference to invest and create more value and opportunities. It’s open to debate whether this is worth the tradeoffs, but certainly this is part of what can happen.)

I believe that the mere fact of engaging in trade, whether that be barter, or being paid in money, because you’re providing a service or a product, is a positive, even community-building act. It’s not extractive capitalism. Everyone involved benefits.

Wanting to make enough money that you can be safe and secure, and even to be able to buy an ice cream for your kid without thinking twice about it, is absolutely logical and rational. We live in a world that will punish you for not having enough to cover your student debt, your health insurance, your old age. There is nothing selfish about wanting to provide that security for yourself and your family.

That means you’ve got to price your work so that you can make enough to take care of all those needs.

And that number is probably a LOT higher than you think it is.

Just because your work is expensive does not mean you’re exploiting anybody. It’s unfortunate when someone you wish could afford to work with you, can’t. But that doesn’t make you a bad person.

If you’re committed, as many of my clients are, to providing access to the wonderful work you do to people who are under-resourced, that’s awesome. There are ways to help under-resourced people even when you, yourself, are also under-resourced. But you can’t do that at the sacrifice of yourself and your own wellbeing. If you do, you are not going to be able to continue to give, because you’ll burn out.

And it’s just not fair to ask that of you.

Do you deserve a living wage?

Art is work. What we do is work. And not only is it work, but it’s also work that we’re proposing to do in order to support ourselves and our families.

The question I want you to ask yourself is, Do you deserve a living wage? Do you deserve to be able to live from the work that you put so much effort and love into?

Do you deserve to be safe? Do you deserve to be able to pay for health insurance? Do you deserve to be able to pay for your children’s college education? Pay down your loans? Is that something that you believe?

And if it that makes you think, Oh gosh, I don’t know. Do I deserve that? Ask yourself: Does your best friend deserve that? Would you fight anyone who tried to tell you your best friend didn’t deserve to earn a safe and secure living in exchange for all the hard work they do?

Stand up for your best friend—stand up for yourself. It’s time to come to understand how valuable your work really is, and price it so that it has a solid shot of being sustainable.

Want to take this up with me directly? Join me for the next Simplify to Amplify Roundtable, a free, live monthly strategy session for creative pros and entrepreneurs to chart a path to stop working so damn hard and start getting the results you deserve.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.

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