Creativity, Income and Personal Power

On settling for scraps versus inspiring ourselves

Let me tell you a story about asking for a raise. 

In 2016, freshly laid off from a seed-stage VC-backed startup, I was unemployed, I had just moved to NYC, and I needed a job. Burned from going out on a limb to a venture that soon proved to be the tech equivalent of a liquefaction zone, I was craving structure. A PR agency I had worked at 2 jobs previously reached out and offered me a role. The catch was that it was a 30% pay cut. Sure, I said. I needed a job. 

The first few months I worked back at this agency I was so stunned from the startup falling apart and getting laid off, not to mention the shock of moving across the country while our nation’s democracy fell apart, I’ll be the first to admit that I was kind of clocking in/out. Not delinquent; just not my usual sparkly self. As I regained my mojo though, I felt myself increasingly coming back into my own -- my ideas were stronger, my PowerPoint decks sharper, my insights on point. I finagled my way onto a new team within this agency and did some of the best work of my career to date. I identified trends that revealed cultural undercurrents my client was unaware of. I planned a media tour for my client that was objectively baller. I presented a plan for reinvigorating my client’s consumer communications to be more collective-oriented, visually fresh, and in touch with the culture - that too got rave reviews. By 2018, I felt like I was adding value way above my previously negotiated salary, and I knew for a fact the work I contributed to had increased revenue for the agency— so I asked for a 15% raise. This raise would also allow me to actually pay all my bills and have some spending money at the end of it -- living in NYC/LA is just more expensive! 

Nothing happened. I got flat-out ignored. I got a great annual review, and… no raise. 

It was like working on a beautiful hollandaise sauce, and then it breaking right at the end. All that work - it just fell apart. Feeling wronged and craving context, I set up time with HR to talk about it. 

The truth came out. HR told me that they don’t consider the cost of living in the city or, really even how much value the individual was adding, but rather that there are pay-bands for a particular role based on what competitors are paying for a similar title. When you have x title, you make between a and b for that role. There were industry standards. 

I realized that at too many legacy companies, compensation is a race to the bottom. Companies are looking at how much competitors pay for a particular service - the service of your intellect and creativity - and see what the lowest possible rate they can get away with to pay you. 

It’s a mindfuck, compensation. You associate your value with how much you’re getting paid. In my mind, on a more self-deprecating day, if a company doesn’t want to give me raise, I’m not worth that money. How stupid of me to even think that I can ask for this. You thought you planned a great event? You think that deck was good? You thought you killed that presentation? Nope. 

Your inner critic gains strength when external conditions match your worst fears about yourself. 

Begging for scraps

Last week, the turmoil at Conde Nast continued with 5 people resigning from the video team and another 2 resigning from the print operation at Bon Appetit. 

In Priya Krishna’s statement announcing her leaving Bon Appetit video, she wrote, “I am grateful for the platform Bon Appetit video gave me. But I refuse to be apart of a system that takes advantage of me while insisting that I should be grateful for scraps.”

Legacy media orgs refusing to evolve their work culture and pay structures are like your inner critic on steroids. It’s this idea that you are lucky to get a job, you should be so grateful to have this work - what makes you think you can push back or ask for more?

A spokesman for Condé Nast said in a statement: “We pay all our employees fairly, and in accordance with their role and experience. Our pay practices are in line with industry standards.”

It’s the “industry standards” line that’s telling. The industry standards are fucked! The industry sets the pay-bands for these roles, pay bands that are the very least companies can get by with. 

Don't you think it’s disingenuous to blame up or out when the industry you’re pointing to is what needs evolution? Why not change the industry? Why not be a leader in improving what the industry standards are?

Working in legacy media organizations is not the world’s most lucrative job. It’s even been whispered that large media companies expect the salary they pay employees to not be the primary source of income for that person, fully expecting the people they employ to be still on their parent’s payroll, or the beneficiaries of a trust. 

Too often, the compensation strategy of legacy media organizations is simply one of begging for scraps. 

Inspiring ourselves and writing what we want

The antidote to begging for scraps is to make your own meal. 

Earlier in the week, a conversation was had around how the most exciting work being done in food media is in personal newsletters. I’d like to think so!!

On good days, having my platform to opine on business, media, and culture through the lens of food is nourishing and generative. It pushes me into reflection -- I remember things about my work, my joyful memories as well as my terrible memories, and I hold space for my own healing not unlike a really good therapy session. 

To boot, a recipe blog post isn’t the place for a meditation on an ingredient or a memory of a meal. That type of writing gets blasted on social media and doesn’t bode well for SEO ranking. Better to write a 1000-word article on a recipe that’s how-to focused, optimized for key search terms, and proactively answers questions from your recipe-making readers. Keep your rambling musings on linguine to a platform not beholden to Google’s algorithm.

On harder days, in relationship to my writing, I feel frustrated and critical of myself, worrying that I’ll never have a good idea and nobody cares and my newsletter mailing list isn’t super big so who cares if I don’t publish this week. 

Taking the independent route in writing and creating work is a slog, but you’re not indebted to the pay bands of an employer with retrograde comp structures. You probably do have a day job to pay the bills, but creating space for one’s creativity to grow makes tolerating day-in-day-out of work a bit more doable. As my friend Dona Sarkar has said, you distribute your emotional eggs a bit more, so a bad day at the office doesn’t mean you have a bad life - just go fiddle on your own project for a while and the day will surely turn around. On the flip side, a day of writer’s block can be rejuvenated by giving some attention to a day-job project. 

An independent platform does take much longer to grow -- you don’t get the instant stardom of being on Bon Appetit’s video channel -- but your community grows in step with your voice and strengthens organically. (or so I tell myself???) 

Doing your own thing is a constant battle with your inner critic. The same inner censor that tells you to not ask for a raise at a corporate job. The same inner critic that gets mirrored by haters on social media. The inner critic that tells you to not publish, to not write, to not create. The inner critic, as Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “resides in our left brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks disguised as the truth. The censor says things like, ‘you call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will. You can’t even spell, what makes you think you can be creative?’”

But, at the same time, Cameron says, we counter our internal censor by inspiring ourselves and writing what we want. By nurturing our inner artist, who is the same as our inner child, we reclaim our agency and our creativity on our terms. We recover our worth, on both financial and creative levels. 

Trusting our creativity and standing firm our intrinsic value is new behavior for many of us. Especially those of us who graduated from college in 2008-2012, the economy was so precarious, that we truly were grateful to have any job. It feels very threatening and unsafe to nurture your “silly” idea, to carve out precious time for your writing or art or cooking, or to advocate for the value you bring to a company, because at any time your productivity and income is under question. 

In the end, there is a recognizable ebb-and-flow to the process of reclaiming our creative selves, of rejecting scraps, and of inspiring ourselves. We must not let our self-doubt turn into self-sabotage. The inner mentor is a quieter voice than the inner critic (who is quite loud!), but it’s the one we should pay more attention to. It’s something I’m working on doing, one essay at a time, despite the fear and the shame spirals going into it.

As we nurture our creativity and trust our inner mentor, we lose the fear of rejection and the inertia of half-hearted corporate acceptance, because we’re not confusing income with personal power. And, paradoxically, it’s what can ultimately bring us abundance.