A point of clarity. I feel the need to say that my expression of personal boundaries around money, my strength of conviction around charging what one’s time and talent is worth…has nothing to do with the deep reverence and profound respect I have for Ram Dass. Not that you’ll ever read this…but Ram Dass: I love you. And thank you.
This is a missive about money, value, opportunity, and discernment.
Plus, some guidance around how you can examine some of your own blocks and narratives around money, and how to weigh professional opportunities. You can download my quick guide on how to determine if a project is worth your time, energy and effort.
Because working for yourself and dealing with money is bound to bring up the sticky, sometimes confusing aspects of who we are and how we show up for ourselves.
A few years ago, I was living in Thailand with my (then brand-new) girlfriend. Chiang Mai in its dry season is dead-dog heat; it’s ferocious and unforgiving in its blaze. You get on your motorbike, hoping for a drip of wind, but all you get is hair-dryer air sandpapering your face.
To escape the fever-dream of our ill-timed stay, we stayed at a breezy boutique hotel that was peppered with peacock wallpaper and cream-color wrought-iron bed frames. In the languid poolside meeting room I met with a prominent agency owner who, after inspecting my portfolio, asked me to write a piece for his “very high profile spiritual leader” client. It’s worth noting that this agency owner had previously been in a director position for the predecessor of Spotify.
Of course I was intrigued. A year prior, I ghostwrote for Louise Hay’s personal psychic, and had recently penned a piece for Brandon Bays through a different agency. I was enjoying working on content that was in alignment with my 20-year long obsession with spirituality and metaphysics.
Turns out the client? It was Ram Dass. And to be clear that my headline wasn’t clickbait, yes I mean “Be Here Now” Ram Dass. Yes, I mean the guy whose bestie was Dr.Timothy Leary. Yes, the dude whose books influenced me greatly as a young teen when I was trying to make sense of why the heck I felt totally lost on this beautiful, violent planet.
There was just one problem. This piece of content was about 25 pages long, and the pay was, well, really really really low. Laughably low. Like, way under minimum-wage low.
Let me make something super clear here. Ram Das’s foundation were not the deciders in this scope and price. The agency was in charge, and the agency admitted to underestimating the writing budget. Hiring me was the discretion of the agency, not Ram Das’s team or himself. (C’mon, like he’s got time for that.)
Sigh. Here’s where the decision got harder.
The first year or so of my writing career could have been labeled a TV show called “How low can Laura go?!” After I got enough portfolio pieces under my belt, and worked with enough people, I finally had enough ammo to quiet my insidious imposter syndrome and charge fair rates for my services and talent.
But let me tell you something: if you have ANY shred of unresolved trauma, sense of low self-worth, or are unhealed from societal or personal adversity, it’s INFINITELY harder to tell people that you charge more than what they’re willing to offer.
When you’re first starting out, pricing is often intrinsically linked to how much you feel you deserve as an individual. It doesn’t really matter what pricing structure or model you’re working with…it CAN get personal and confronting.
Most people don’t want to talk about that, but it’s absolutely true. I’ve seen this in many of the junior writers I’ve spoken to, and I experienced it myself.
So, for the first few years of writing, not only was I working on providing the most value and talent and effort I possibly could for clients, I was also working extremely hard to adjust my own personal glass ceiling.
And this situation triggered all of that mess.
On top of that, I was unaware that Ram Das and his foundation had been undergoing some financial issues in recent past.
Gosh, I still cringe that I didn’t know that. Had I known, I would have surely shifted my perspective on the situation. The agency (rightfully so) did a fair amount of industry name dropping, so I thought I was dealing with some pretty abundant budgets.
In any case, I was told that the pay they were offering was non-negotiable. Take it or leave it.
Another factor in my decision was that Thailand is SUPER cheap to live in (but the agency and their client are Western, so where I was living was besides the point). However, the amount they offered was a nice chunk of change in the local economy.
Still, something about the whole affair just felt…wrong. Uncomfortable. Like, to accept the project felt like I was patting myself on the head and telling myself that I didn’t need more, that maybe next time I’d get paid what my time was worth, that I should make an exception because who was I to expect fair pricing?
That mindset felt toxic to me, and I hadn’t financially undercut myself in a long, long time. I didn’t want to let myself down in that regard.
But then I had this other nagging voice in my head screaming IT’S RAM DAS DUMMY!!! DID YOU EVER THINK THAT AT ANY POINT IN YOUR CAREER YOU’D BE ASKED TO WRITE FOR RAM FREAKING DAS?
No, I didn’t. But I certainly hoped that if I did, I’d be compensated fairly.
As my dear teacher, Carolyn Elliot, says “I don’t want to live my life as someone’s exploited resource.”
I’ll add this: being someone’s brilliant-and-exploited resource is one of the fastest routes to burn-out and giving up as a self-employed individual.
And, as a woman of color who also happens to be queer (and differently-abled, but who’s counting my minority boxes?), people (usually subconsciously) challenge me on pricing, much more than my white-guy counterparts. It’s changing, but it still happens, and my skin is thicker because of it.
But ultimately, here’s what I have to say about that.
Fuck being underpaid.
I didn’t leave the soul-sucking wage-slave world to turn around and stomp upon my own dignity.
So, in the powdery-air of Chiang Mai’s scorching season, among glittering Buddhas and the marine-blue hotel pool, I made my decision.
But you already know the end of this story. You already know that I said “no”.
The question is…should I have said no?
Here’s the thing: Probably not.
It’s impossible to be sure. You know the old adage—that you regret the things you didn’t do, as opposed to the things you did do? It’s mostly true.
Maybe if I had said “yes”, I’d now be writing for Tony Robbins or Oprah. Perhaps it would have led to other opportunities.
Or, I would have signed a non-disclosure, which would have made writing about the experience or referencing it on my website or portfolio, completely illegal.
And then I wouldn’t have this story to tell you.
TL;DR: Weighing your options can be really hard!
So, if you’re going to work for free or on the cheap, and your experience/ROI/talent is greater than what you’re being offered, here’s what I suggest you weigh out.
- Am I considering getting paid a great deal less because I’m psyching myself out (AKA, imposter syndrome)
- Am I allowing my low self-worth to dictate how other people pay me? If it’s not a straightforward answer, go to the next bullet point…
- What are my fears? Write them out and see what they reveal about the situation, and then “argue” with yourself and see if you can find clarity. For example, if your fears reveal that you think you haven’t done enough press releases to accept a project, sit back and think about how many press releases you’ve *actually* done. (Like, if you’ve done more than two, you’re probably fine! There are literally a gazillion templates on le google.)
- Does it feel right in my gut and it’s just my head that’s telling me no? (If that’s the case, ALWAYS go with your gut!) Or, does it feel wrong in my gut and right in my head? (Again, always go with your gut!)
- Is this getting me in the door of someplace that would otherwise be closed to me?
- Am I filling an industry gap in my portfolio that I need to fill, so I can pursue similar work further? Am I allowed to publicly display these pieces?
- Is the “name recognition” worth it?
- When I look back on this in 10 years, will I regret not taking the opportunity? (Like, I definitely regret NOT taking the Ram Das opportunity.)
- Is there another way this is feeding me: is it nourishing my desire to give back to a cause or community? Is it “charity work” that can be a tax write-off?
- Is this opportunity teaching me something in the process? For example, will I be compensated for learning a new skill or researching a new concept that I can later capitalize on? Am I being made privy/expected to learn materials that are normally extremely expensive—thereby making the exchange a partial trade? (An example of this would be learning Transcendental Meditation, which is normally very expensive, so you could write about it as part of your project.)
- Can I get testimonials from the experts or influencers that I’m working for?
P.S. A word of caution re: Chiang Mai. Don’t go there in the hot season, unless you like heat strokes in temples that are swarming with tourists and alarmingly far from medical facilities. That was super fun, and not scary at all.
The fine print: I had no interaction with Ram Das or his foundation. This is a true account of an experience I had with an agency who was acting as a contractor between said foundation and subcontrators. I am making no claims regarding Ram Das or his foundation.