Your struggle is your strength
“You must separate yourself from your work.”
I listened. Took in the thought. But didn’t connect completely with his meaning.
There I was, sitting in a seminar about negotiation, with a bunch of business types.
It was midway through the morning session. A nice guy teaching the class. I liked him; he had a warm personal style. Looking around, I could see he was connecting with the group, most of whom were MBAs.
I was still considering the concept of separation from my work when somebody asked, “You mean we can’t negotiate with someone we’re in love with?”
A couple guys snickered. Yes, the class was mostly men. “Smart-asses,” I thought.
I glanced quickly at one of the women in the room, still thinking about the meaning of “separating myself from my work.”
She looked annoyed, and she raised her hand. “My staff are a bunch of artist and writer types. I don’t think it’s possible for them to separate themselves from their work.”
I noticed that she was blushing a bit, and wondered if she was one of the “artist/writer types” herself and just didn’t want to reveal weakness to this group. I didn’t blame her.
It was about then that it hit me: There’s no way that I or any of the designers I work with could separate themselves from their work.
It’s impossible. Our work is centrally driven by the feelings we have. Separate the artist from the feelings, and the work stinks.
Thinking that I was grateful she asked the question, I waited for our instructor’s additional insights.
“You see,” he said, taking off his glasses (I assumed to look wise), “when you’re emotionally involved with what you’re negotiating, you’re extremely vulnerable to your feelings.”
He paused, looked around the room. Holding his glasses just so, he went on. “When you’re vulnerable, you make bad decisions.”
Then he held his glasses up to the light and decided they needed cleaning.
Now I was thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna learn something from this guy about negotiating. But I have to filter it through my own experience.” And to the woman who asked, I said a silent “Thank you” for the quick question. A question that I was probably going to get to, but hadn’t yet.
He finished cleaning his glasses, called up the next PowerPoint slide and moved on.
I learned plenty in that class. The instructor was experienced. His exercises were excellent. And I’ve been using things I learned that day ever since.
Vulnerability is power
But there it is: What if you’re negotiating over something that’s personal? A work you created or participated in creating is very different from some business project or detail that may be important to you but isn’t your own creation. When you’re part of a creation, your very core is involved in it. Of course you’re vulnerable.
I’ve made my way through the world my entire life as a creative. Aside from negotiating over the purchase of something as utilitarian as a car, all the negotiation I’ve ever done has been personal.
When clients hired me, I was always thrilled for the chance to exercise my creativity on their behalf. Still am.
That means I throw all my creative energy and emotions into the work. And yet I always feel the work could be better if I spent just a little bit more time on it. My vulnerability, oh so apparent.
When it came time to ask for the money, my feeling that my work could be just a bit better would always lead me to ask for less than I should.
Years went by before I really understood that this was a dilemma. On the one hand, my clients would get the best from me; on the other, the guilt that I wasn’t quite good enough would keep me from asking for top dollar.
After a while I began to think seriously about the irony of this fundamental imbalance.
I did have some success finding ways to manage my emotions and get the fees I needed to build my business. Driven more by the need to survive than anything else, I learned how to retain my emotional connection to my work – and my vulnerability – while still negotiating effectively for myself.
I learned the hard way. I learned by giving up too much and regretting it later. I also learned by watching others do the same.
I began to read about negotiations. I took the workshop looking for answers. And I began to realize my dilemma wasn’t unique to me. Creatives everywhere struggle to ask for what they’re worth.
When they ask
My first step was realizing that when a client is considering hiring me, that’s when my value is highest. The fact of them considering me gives me power in the potential relationship.
Next, a simple epiphany came to me: They can’t get what I do from anyone but me.
That means that if a client is considering me, they see my value. They realize that in hiring me they’ll get what my experience, my skills and my expertise have accomplished for others.
They’re evaluating how my ability to help others will help them.
Weakness becomes strength
When a potential client considers hiring me and paying me elite money, that means my history as a creative is relevant in that moment. This makes my past creative struggles relevant to the negotiation.
I can’t separate my emotions from my work: that’s my personal struggle. But I can put the same emotional energy into understanding this potential client that I put into my work. That investment shows my strength. I’m making a commitment.
When I say investment, I mean I study the client as thoroughly as I study for any creative project I take on.
I’ve found that when I make that emotional investment, the client sees not just the resulting insights but also how my creativity will help them. And when they do, it gives them a powerful incentive to hire me.
That pivots what could be an emotional weakness into a strength – by applying my creative process to winning the client and getting an appropriate fee.
Not an “I’m sorry, I’m not that good” fee, but top dollar.
That’s how you can turn your struggle into your strength. It sure works for me.
For more on this sign up for our workshop Negotiations for Creatives in the Age of Covid.