In our work at Popforms, we encounter lots of people looking to advance in their careers. Kate M and I respond to tons of emails from people who want help evaluating themselves, their careers, and the choices in their lives. Almost every one of these conversations involves valuing and assessing opportunities. And besides each of these conversations, I know about this, because I have had to do it in my own life.
This blog post was a tough one to start. It’s a bit more vulnerable than I usually care to be on the Internet, but Kate M pushed me to write about it because she thought would be a valuable read on career and decision-making. On weighing the value of opportunities, and knowing when to take a chance.
And I think she’s probably right. So [deep breath], here we go…
Working for less than you’re worth
I don’t have a salary at Popforms. In fact, I’m not even really an employee; yes, I get paid, but I don’t “work” there, technically. I am self-employed and paid hourly, like a consultant, but I make less than basically any other actual consultant on earth. After all, Popforms is bootstrapped, and I know that I am lucky to get paid at all and still be called a co-founder.
Still, though, Kate M frequently reminds me that one day soon I *will* be paid more, and I believe her. I believe her because (as we always stress as so important on this blog) I trust her. I also believe her because I believe in Popforms, the tools we are building, and the philosophy that drives it. I think we’ll be successful, and I know that with that success will come more money.
But in truth, I’m not too concerned whether that raise comes soon or not. It’s not that I don’t care about making money; I would love to make more, of course. It’s just that, if I leave Popforms having never made a penny more than I’m making now, it will still have been an incredibly valuable opportunity for me. To me, this experience is worth more than an increase in salary.
Kate M said to me the other day, “I see you as someone who wakes up every morning, knowing they are working for less than they’re worth, but you understand why.”
And that is true. I could get more money if I went somewhere else. But in this role, I am being paid in other enormous ways. In opportunity, experience, and confidence. I see my time at Popforms as an investment, the same way I see the little bit of money I put into my IRA every month as a (much more literal) investment.
A couple of years ago I didn’t know what I wanted from my career, and I know many of my peers feel the same way too. So today I wanted to share my story, of how evaluating my own priorities has led me here — to this titleless, freelancey, startup gig, that is also an incredible opportunity — and how that has set me on a path that I know will only result in happiness and success.
What are your priorities?
Unlike Kate M, who has had a vision for her career since before she started college, I am still working on defining exactly what career path is going to be right for me.
However, two years ago when I quit my office job in San Francisco, it was because I had finally started to form a picture of the life path that I wanted.
I am an introvert, and being surrounded by people in an office drained my energy and left me feeling exhausted at the end of the day. Plus, I’m an early riser, and the inflexible 9-5 schedule I had to work meant that I spent most of my least efficient hours at work — which made me feel even more tired and like I was wasting my time. My work, too — mostly data entry and customer service — was less than fulfilling.
So I quit, knowing two things that I didn’t know before I started that job: in my life and career, I needed flexibility and I needed to feel fulfilled and challenged. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get started.
I decided these things were important enough, that it was worth gambling on my ability to put them into action. I decided to try and work as a freelance writer, and actually survive pursuing the life I wanted to live.
By defining these two priorities (flexibility & fulfillment), I freed myself from the power that money takes over many of us in our careers. I think salary becomes the default way many of us assess our own worth at work. The job that pays more is the job that values us more. The job that pays less values us less.
But that’s not always the case. Your salary is not always the best metric for measuring how much you are appreciated, and if money is not your top priority (maybe something like autonomy, flexibility, working in a specific industry, giving back, learning, or personal fulfillment is) then it is worth your time to separate your *own* priorities from the priorities society sets out for you (i.e. that making more money = more success).
Of course, everyone likes money, but studies have proven that even money stops making us happy after a certain point where our basic needs and desires are met. Once our food, shelter, and safety are covered, we need more, deeper satisfaction that our real needs and priorities are being met — and that, money cannot always provide.
By setting my own priorities based on what I had learned about myself, it made it so that I was able to start pursuing work that made me truly happy, and taking chances on opportunities that would lead to more of that happiness.
Of course, chasing your bliss and getting to eat dinner are not mutually exclusive. I spent most of 2011 hustling to pay the bills — I wrote lame blog posts for sketchy SEO companies, I picked up dry cleaning as a personal assistant, and I wrote job listings for a friend’s startup. I did 10 hours a week at Banana Republic for 2 months one summer, and I even took a full-time temp job at Starbucks HQ while still chasing down side gigs when things got really desperate.
I worked these weird jobs so I could make enough money to eat and pay my rent, but I was happier than I’d ever been because I was running my own show, making my own schedule, and actually achieving the autonomy and flexibility I’d hoped for when I left my office job.
Eventually, I got a steady writing/assistant gig with a couple who took an interest in teaching me how to write for the Internet, and I got better and better at what I did.
And that’s when I met Kate M. Before I ever met Kate M, I knew she was someone who helped things happen for other people and I knew that I absolutely 100% had to say yes to the chance to work with her. Even in our first phone conversation, when I told her I could be her assistant but that my passion was writing, she said, “I think we can find a way to help you do that.”
I started out doing 5 hours a week, helping with editing her blog and formatting the TLN. It was tasks that were below my skill level (cutting and pasting, for example), and I could have quit because the tasks and the pay were “beneath me”. But I also knew the every blog post of hers that I read and every phone call we had, I learned something new from Kate. She was investing in me and sharing her knowledge, skills, and experience with me. So instead of quitting, I made those 5 hours a week the ones where I worked the hardest I could. This was my opportunity.
Slowly, over time I got a raise and I got more hours, and eventually when she founded Popforms, my role expanded into the full-time thing it is today. I’m no longer just a writer, and I’m not an assistant anymore; I’m a cofounder and a career coach. I have the flexibility and rewarding work I’ve always wanted, and I am finally starting to add on bonuses like reliable income, training, and opportunities for growth too.
To put it simply: Kate M took a risk by investing in me and my potential. She pays me not just money, but also with time, training, and mentoring — all of which will make both of us more successful down the road.
Remember, a new employee doesn’t make their employer any money for a long time. It’s easy to forget that your salary isn’t just an exchange of your work for their money. It’s an investment in you, especially if you are young or new to an industry, because this person or company has taken a chance on your potential. They are gambling that you’ll grow into a profitable role for them, and in return, you learn skills that will ideally make you a profitable person down the road.
So I am not just paid in the hourly, freelance checks I get every two weeks. I am paid in the fact that Kate took a risk by investing in me; I am paid by the time she spends telling me something about business that I didn’t know before; I am paid in the opportunities she gives me to build my brand and skills, so that I am more successful; I am paid in the confidence and strength I have built by working for someone who constantly pushes me to be better than I was yesterday.
How to get everything you want all the time
…or at least feel like you are getting everything you want all the time. :)
I don’t want this post to sound like a pitch for throwing off the shackles of your office job and joining me in the Millennial-flexible-work-lifestyle revolution. I’m just one person, and these are just *my* priorities.
What I do want to pitch to you is this: the idea of re-examining your career path (or examining it for the first time) and identifying what really matters to you. The job that pays the least isn’t necessarily the one that values you the least, so don’t let your salary be the default way you measure your success.
Think about what really matters to you, and then start creating a strategy that will help you get the things you want most. Here are your action items for putting this into practice:
Define it. Don’t let default options define the value of your work and your life. Decide how you’ll measure your own success, and then pursue goals that align with those values. Maybe you want flexibility to travel and work from anywhere. Or maybe you want to make as much money as possible so you can retire early and surf every day. When you know what success looks like to you, you’ll know better how to get there.
Be patient. It took two years of piecing it together before I got to where I am today. And I know that bigger opportunities, with more money and other bonuses, will come even later. And I’m happy to wait, because being willing to be uncomfortable for a time means being there to grab opportunities other people wouldn’t wait around for.
It’s not just paying dues. You can’t just “get through” the rocky early years and come out on the other side rich and famous. Every time I get anxious about earning more money or getting more recognition, I remind myself that it is by continuing to succeed in *this role today* that I’ll get to those opportunities tomorrow. If I try to rush or cut corners, I won’t be as good as I need to be to get those opportunities in the future.
Remember no life and no job is perfect. This is why knowing what matters to you most is so important. Every job has terrible days that will make you feel like you absolutely have to quit, and if you don’t remember what you’re getting out of the deal (either right now, or what this job is leading you to in the future) you may give up on a golden opportunity.
Say yes. Making progress or growth is always a choice, and you always have the option of saying no (either literally, or by putting in less than your best effort and letting that make your decision for you). Decide to say “yes” to opportunities, and put your whole heart behind the things you care about. The highs are high and the lows are low, but being willing to say yes and commit will put you ahead of most people, which is where you’ll be able to grab the opportunities that mean the most to you.
Look for more. If you aren’t where you want to be (yet) one great way to start opening doors is to look for new opportunities and projects outside of your work. When I was freelancing I tried all sorts of gigs, and one of them lead to another, and brought me here. None of them just came to me, though. Each one I applied and interviewed for and then performed my best when I was given the chance.
If you want to do something else, use a bit of your spare time to try something new. And focus on the task and opportunity, not just the paycheck (it is hard to get lucrative pay for work that you can do in a few hours here and there).
For me, I am still figuring out what I want to do (this post came from a conversation where Kate M was pushing me to tell her what I wanted most in my time at Popforms), but I know that I am happier with my lifestyle, and am learning more than I have in any other job. If you are unhappy or unsatisfied hopefully my story gives you a little inspiration, and if you have other ideas or suggestions, then leave them in the comments below!