Why You’re Undervaluing Yourself (And How to Stop)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Ali Hale of Aliventures.

Do you feel uncomfortable charging for your creativity? Maybe you’re an illustrator – you draw because you love to, but you can’t bring yourself to ask people to pay fifty dollars for something which, to you, seems like a glorified doodle. Perhaps you’re a writer and you can’t understand why anyone would pay you fifty dollars or more for a blog post. Or you’re a coach, a programmer, a graphic designer, a cake decorator, a social media expert…

Whatever it is you do (or want to do), there are a couple of things you should know:

  • You are good at this – even if that statement causes knee-jerk resistance
  • There are a lot of people who cannot do what you do and who are more than happy to pay you

So why does it feel weird to charge someone for your particular skill? Why does the voice in your head ask Who in their right mind would pay for THAT? And who do you think you are to sell yourself as a writer, an artist, a coach, a designer? Who made YOU an expert?

Since leaving my day job and striking out on my own – first as a writer and website handy person, now just as a writer – I’ve talked to a lot of people who find the idea of freelancing intriguing and attractive, but in one way or another feel that it’s not for them. Three main issues crop up –which are probably causing you discomfort about charging a fair rate, or even preventing you launching into business altogether:

  • Taking your skills for granted
  • Wondering why people pay for your skills, given that you wouldn’t
  • Focusing on your flaws

I want to explore each of these – and suggest some ways for you to start getting a more accurate perspective about the value of what you do.

Taking Your Skills for Granted

I’ve always enjoyed writing, experimenting with stories, essays and journalistic pieces at school, then studying English at university. Words come naturally to me: I think best with a pen in my hand, I’ve been blogging on and off since the age of eighteen, and the only online game I’ve ever played was entirely textual…

I imagine that you might have a similar story about your chosen area. Many of us get started in childhood: perhaps with drawing, singing, or dancing. Others find their passion in their teens: a musical instrument, acting, computer programming, even teaching. When you’ve been doing something for so long that it’s become second nature, you tend to take it for granted.

You also enjoy whatever it is you do. Of course, there are times when it’s tricky, frustrating or requires a lot of creative energy – but, in one way or another, you wouldn’t be you if you weren’t a writer, or an artist, or a coach, or a singer, or a musician. You’d carry on using your particular skill, in some form or another, whether or not you were being paid for it. In a very real way, your art is simply what you do.

So how can you step outside your own experience, the utter naturalness of being an artist, writer, coach, etc?

Look at the time you’ve invested.

How long have you spent learning, practicing and using this particular skill? Chances are, it’s taken years of your life. I can’t say exactly how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent writing – not to mention reading great books, reading about writing, and listening and talking to writers – but it’s a lot of time.

You weren’t born with the ability to draw, sing, act, program a computer or play the ukulele. You’ve built up your skill over time – whether through formal training or, more likely, hours of experimentation and play.

You Wouldn’t Pay for Your Skills – But Others Will

Perhaps you’ve not yet consciously acknowledged this hang-up, but I suspect you have it. You wouldn’t pay for your own skills – which makes it very hard to judge what they’re worth to other people.

Since writing comes easily for me, the thought of paying someone to write is seriously hard to get my head around. When I create a website, I write all the copy myself. When I want a press release, again, I work it out myself. So charging people a professional rate for my writing automatically causes some level of anxiety: I wouldn’t ever pay $50 for a blog post – I’d just write one myself – yet some of the blogs I write for pay upwards of that.

Your sellable skills probably began as hobbies, and the idea of paying someone to do something enjoyable is weird – especially if you’re in a culture where work focuses on the money, rather than on doing something fulfilling.

So how can you step outside your own set of circumstances, interests and skills to see yourself from a different perspective?

Well, you know that there are people who would find that what you do impossible. I’ve met people who struggle immensely to express themselves in writing. Recognising the truth of this may mean translating what you do into another field. For example, I have little skill with visual design or illustration, and I have no particular interest in this area. If I wanted a logo, I’d happily pay for one. However, I know that there are plenty of people who draw for fun (my butt-kicking partner, Willie Hewes, is one of them).

What looks like hard, thankless and difficult work to you is someone else’s play. Your particular creative skill is fun and natural for you – but there are millions of people out there who’d be all too glad to pay you for it.

Most People Can’t See Your Flaws

As you advance in a particular creative area, you’ll find yourself more and more aware of what you don’t yet know. You’ll be able to see the flaws and imperfections in what you create. And because you know it’s not perfect, you’ll have some resistance to charging for it.

What many creatives don’t realise is that, to someone who’s a complete newbie in your field, your skills are indistinguishable from an expert’s. Plus, they don’t need (and can’t afford) someone who really is a guru.

Unless you actually trying to defraud people, you have no reason to see yourself a fraud. You have certain skills you can offer the world, and whether or not you don’t appreciate them, other people can.  You may not see yourself as a 10 on the old sliding scale, maybe you’re a 5, but let me tell you this: To people who are a 0, 1 or 2, your 5 might as well be a 10.  You have value they need.

(Dave Navarro, 7 Steps to Playing a Much Bigger Game (With Workbook), The Launch Coach)

This came home to me when my younger sister showed me a painting she’d done. She’s been drawing and painting since early childhood: I’d spent weekend afternoons writing; she’d get out a sketchbook and draw. To me, her painting looked perfect. To her, there were (apparently!) obvious flaws – the brushwork, the composition.

You see the flaws in your work because you are highly skilled. Depending on your field, a high skill level may not even be required. I’m a better writer than I am a “techy” person, but I was able to charge for website services because the limited skills I have are useful to people who are baffled by buying a domain name. Don’t wait until you’re perfect – your skills are already of value.

One of the best ways to get over your sense of your own flaws is to simply carry on. Keep providing your services or putting your creative work out there – and take the feedback you receive seriously. Trust the opinion of those who hire you. Many of the editors I write for have praised me for doing a “great job”. That’s the reality, however much I recognise that I’m no Pulitzer Prize winner.

Revaluing Your Skills

Here are three questions to think about:

  • How long have you been practicing your particular skill(s)? (How many years have you spent writing? When did you start drawing? etc…)
  • Why do you feel uncomfortable charging for something which you would do for fun?
  • Who would be delighted to pay you for your skills?

And just as a postscript here – I know that when I read this sort of post, I think that I must be the exception. I’ll nod along in agreement, and see how the advice applies to everyone else … just not to me. But here’s the truth: you are not the exception. Everything here applies to you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of  this – whether you’re still considering how to make money as a creative, whether you’re uncomfortable about the idea of raising your prices, or whether you’re completely at peace with what you charge for what you do.

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Comments

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  1. says

    “Everything here applies to you.” It’s so true that this kind of advice can just kind of slide off if you don’t take a moment to take it in.

    I am hyper aware of my own flaws, all the things I’m not doing like I should do them. It really takes a concious and serious effort to tune that out sometimes and say: but here’s the stuff I AM doing right, and it counts for something.
    .-= Willie Hewes´s last blog ..Looking for a Butt-kicking Partner =-.

    • says

      One tip I picked up a while back – from Mark Forster (a life coach, time management chap) – is focusing on the GOOD stuff. What went better today than yesterday. It’s easy to get fixated on the stuff that isn’t going so well, otherwise.

      At the end of every month, I write down a list of things I’ve achieved that month: anything I’ve tried for the first time, new blogging gigs I’ve got, new milestones reached. It’s really fun to look back on … I can chart my blogging career through it! Plus, even on the not-so-productive months, it helps me think through what I DID do well.
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..You Need to See the Box Before You Can Think Outside It =-.

  2. says

    As a creative entrepreneur in visual arts (furniture), I have dealt with this and at times, still do. I’m moving my expertise and experience into a new business in online woodworking education. It’s time to battle those same thoughts again. Instead of my pieces, it’s now about selling my expertise. This was a much needed review of what it takes to succeed.
    .-= Adam King´s last blog ..Are You Designing a Legacy? =-.

  3. Charlie says

    I just wanted to publicly say how great it felt to read and share Ali’s post with you all. I’m so glad to have her as a friend, fellow writer, and now contributor here.

    Thank you, Ali.

    Everyone else: please encourage her on if you like her posts. We want to see more of her, no?

  4. says

    This post is a perfect holiday business “gift” to many, especially landscape designers/coaches (bit biased I suppose). Thank you for the reminders and supportive reference. Value oft gets lost under the veil of lack of self confidence (cleverly disguised as “humility”). Consider your good work inspiring for this creative. Warm regards and thanks again to you and Charlie.
    .-= P. Annie Kirk´s last blog ..Healing Garden Primer ”” a spring appetizer =-.

    • says

      I, too, know what I’m “worth” on a government scale. It’s on a table that updates every year.

      A year ago, it was a better use of my time to work for two days for Uncle Sam than two days for myself. Now it’s the other way around.

      Hang in there, Dave – things will change. But as far as that conversation goes, remember that you’re being paid primarily for expertise instead time. The U.S. government assumes that time in service or position equates to expertise, despite the many counterexamples that both of us could share over a beer.

  5. says

    Excellent post, Ali! I’m a writer and a teacher – when it comes to charging for teaching A level English, I have no problem with that, but putting a price on my own writing or my creative writing teaching has been a far harder thing. Lawyers and plumbers don’t seem to suffer from self-doubt and guilt-pangs when they issue their bills! In a way, it’s as if we don’t see what we do as real work – yet, as you point out, years of training have gone into honing our skills and what we have learnt can be of benefit to others, so why not put a value on that? When I recently set up my own business, I thoroughly enjoyed designing the look for it and writing the copy for it – but working out the prices for the courses and writing support services – nightmare!
    My favourite phrase from your post? ‘Don’t wait until you’re perfect’ – excellent advice, which I find so hard to follow. I put too many things on hold, waiting for them to be just right!

    • says

      Thanks Lorna (and how lovely to see you over in this corner of the internet!) As someone privileged enough to have been on one of your creative writing courses, you are most definitely worth what you’re charging and more …

      Your comment’s made me think that it’s also a lot easier to value ourselves in common jobs which society already has an easy figure for – like teaching English A-level, or, in my case, doing tech support! Striking out on your own in something creative and individual is a lot harder, simply because the value has to come from within us, not from someone saying “you’re worth £x/hour”…
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..2009: Adventures, Ventures and Lessons Learnt =-.

  6. says

    Dude. Totally.

    I especially like the point about people not seeing your flaws. My mother is a graphic designer, and used to wildly perfection-ize about stuff that couldn’t be seen by a normal person’s naked eye. She’s going… but it’s off!!! By four pixels!!! And she has to learn (but sadly hasn’t yet) that nobody even knows, let alone cares.

    Plus, there are lots and lots of people who are gonna love you to bits, with your flaws, despite your flaws, even (gasp!) because of them. :)
    .-= Naomi Dunford´s last blog ..Because Your IttyBiz Deserves A Christmas, Too =-.

    • says

      Eesh, the times I have been clutzing together a website by shifting something 10 pixels to the left … 5 to the right … 2 to the left … (I am not a designer and never want to be. I do letters and words, not pixels.)

      Our *visible* flaws are so mixed up with our good stuff, that it’s hard (impossible?) to have one without the other, I reckon. Yeah, I can be a control freak, but my student friends love it that I’m the (anally) organised one.
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..2009: Adventures, Ventures and Lessons Learnt =-.

  7. says

    There are so many great points in your post – thank you! I’m a perfectionist who is trying to remember when good enough is really good enough. I struggle with this constantly with my writing and with my organizing business.

    Sadly, what works for me is getting to the point of frustration. That’s typically my cue that something needs to change – maybe I need to be charging more, appreciating myself more, etc. It can be a difficult transformation, but I think the familiarity in “my process” eases the pain slightly ;-)
    .-= My Happimess´s last blog ..Gifts Of Gratitude =-.

    • says

      I feel your pain there! Sometimes I have to get to the point where things aren’t too great emotionally, in order for me to realise what change is needed, and where. Frustration can be a good prompt; so can feeling overwhelmed or stuck.

      At least you’ve got a clear idea of how the process works for you — I’d say that puts you one step ahead of a lot of folks!
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..2009: Adventures, Ventures and Lessons Learnt =-.

  8. says

    As someone who has always had a DIY work ethic, I sometimes assume everyone else does as well. Plus, it’s hard to put a price on things that feel like fun. Writing is fun, and the thought of someone paying me to do it…that’s hard to wrap my head around.

    Also, like you I was an English major. I find it hard to think of all my time writing and studying as an investment or job training, but you are right: we have training, skills, and interests that many people don’t.

    I also forget how many people despise writing and would be happy to pay me to do it for them.
    .-= Seth @ Happenchance´s last blog ..Week 52 Roundup =-.

    • says

      Yes, I find it hard to remember that writing is as much of a chore for many people as doing the cleaning is for me…

      (Anyone wanna trade a blog post for a clean kitchen? ;-))

      It *is* hard to get your head round; I know I’m still working on it. I guess one way of looking at is: who’d you rather hire to fix your computer – someone who just does it for the cash, or someone who *loves* computers and really knows them inside-out?

      Then think the same way about the writing you provide for clients…
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..2009: Adventures, Ventures and Lessons Learnt =-.

  9. says

    I cannot believe that I came upon this post at this moment in time. I am really struggling right now with how to earn a living being creative. Each day I am *this* close to chucking it all and then something crosses my radar that encourages me. Wow. I guess I can believe this post found its way to me. I think the universe works like that.
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Guitars =-.

    • says

      Jessica, I am so glad you did find it! DON’T chuck it in. It really is possible — and it’s so worth it. Keep at it, and find the help/information/support you need to make it.

      Very best of luck!
      .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Why I Blog =-.

  10. says

    Wow! This was a great post, and exactly what I needed to hear. I may have to re-read it a few times when I wake up in the middle of the night and think that everything I’ve ever written is crap (like last night!)

    I am starting to lay the groundwork to offer my services as a non-profit consultant. Part of that is developing my blog. Part of it is talking myself off the ledge. But as you indicated, my experience may be a 5 and my creativity/ideas a 7, but to the small non profit struggling to get things done, it might be all the experience and creativity they need and can afford!

    Ditto for my fledgling freelance writing career.

    Thanks for a dash of courage. I’ll be back for more!

    • says

      Thanks Alyssa, so glad it was helpful to you! (And yeah, I completely know that feeling of thinking that my writing’s rubbish.)

      You’ve hit it there: many clients are just looking for something adequate, not something outstanding. It’s like buying a $15 bottle of wine instead of a $1500 one … it’s perfectly nice and perfectly good for most of us, and doesn’t break the bank!

      Good luck with the career!

  11. says

    Brilliant, I so needed to hear this right now. I’ve been getting lots of these messages from the universe lately, guess I’m finally ready to hear it.

    And in answer to your question, I’m now 42, I started drawing when I was 19 and I’ve considered myself a professional exhibiting artist for at least the last ten years but it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started going ‘wait a minute, I should be getting paid for this’. What can I say, I’m slow! And that Starving Artist mentality is a hard and entrenched meme to break.

    • says

      And that Starving Artist mentality is a hard and entrenched meme to break.

      I hear you. And it’s not something you break once and for all, either – it breaks in stages and waves.

      Just keep reminding yourself that you don’t have to be poor to do your art, and making a good living off of it isn’t selling out.

      • says

        It took me a while to get out of that mentality (though now I’m sort of bolshy about wanting to get paid for my stuff ;-)) A few years ago I had a blog called “Ali’s Garret”, how’s that for playing up to impoverished writer stereotypes?

  12. says

    Ali,

    This is a great post! I’m a perfectionist and have always nit-picked and overanalyzed my art. Now I’m a milliner (hat maker) and it’s overwhelming sometimes how much of this ancient trade there is to know, especially when the techniques are hard to come by unless you’re in a millinery hot spot (in America, that would mean NY, Chicago, and Philly).

    It’s always a good reminder that my drawing, sculpting, painting, ceramic, and now millinery skills ARE useful and are worth something monetarily. Finding the “right” price is still difficult, largely because Americans still tend to value cheap prices over quality (many European milliners have stopped marketing to Americans because Americans only want a cheap hat, not a quality hat).

    I’m much better about not nit-picking my products because I finally realized that only another milliner – and not even all of them! – will see the flaws I see. As long as the quality is good, it’s sellable. It doesn’t have to withstand hurricane force winds or last 1,000 years to be marketable. As easy as it would be for me to spend 10 hours on each hat (and there’ve been several that took at least 5 hours), I know I’ll never be profitable if I don’t cut myself some slack and view the end product as the majority of people would view it.

    If anything, lately my difficulty has been the frustration of seeing product out there that’s NOT well made but is selling like hot cakes at a steep price. I’ve just purchased a book that should arrive next week called “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce” by Peter Clothier and it addresses how to stay true to yourself and continue doing what you love whether or not society “validates” it with money, praise, etc. Maybe that book would be helpful to your readership as well.

    Keep up the great writing! :-)

    • says

      Ginger, thanks for sharing that — really fascinating (I know nothing about hats, though I had come across the term “milliner” before.) And trust me, if I was buying a hat, I probably wouldn’t notice any of the little niggles that you would.

      When you’re in business, profit and time spent really does matter. I could spend hours agonising over the exact word choice and sentence structure in every blog post I write … but if my editors and readers aren’t going to care either way, what’s the point?

      The book sounds great — I’ll put it on my list… (I have way too many books I’m meaning to buy & read at the moment!)

  13. JC says

    I’ve been writing for the web about 2 years now. I run my own website and have been guest posting but it’s up until recently that I’ve begun getting paid for my work. Initially, it was the scariest thing – accepting money for something I was doing anyway.

    I’ve also learned how to customize websites after hacking around with all of mine for the last year or so. Over the past few months, I’ve been getting paid to do it for others. It’s like this article was written for me but I wasn’t ready to read it until now.

    It really puts the way I view my creative abilities into perspective. Thanks Ali.

  14. says

    Really nice post! I write how-to instructions for crafts and part of my job is to make things look easy. In other words, I save the time of the reader so that she can avoid using the wrong materials or doing steps in the wrong order. But just because the end result looks easy doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy to get there!

  15. says

    VERY good advice. It is the pricing of my product (handcrafted necklaces) that is the hardest for me, because I started to do it for fun, and am now selling mostly to support my bead addiction and make more! A bit of advice I used was to take the cost of supplies, double it, and consider that the minimum price to charge. It really is so hard to put a dollar value on your own talent.

  16. Becca says

    Yup, brilliant article: hear, hear. Applause all round :)

    My favourite visual depiction of this is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchbreath/4194962172/ – the Killer Jellyfish of Graphic Design Favours. Hits the nail on the proverbial. I have this printed out and on my desk as a constant reminder to never take on a non-paying design job again, as by my estimates, the last one I did for free was worth well over $1000 (briefing, research, creative time, draft preparation, travel, proofs, consultations, corrections, overtime etc).

    Now I’m working mainly as a swimming instructor, which may be an utterly different field… but I’ve also had to justify the cost for private lessons. I’ve just written back to a potential client, who was enquiring whether I’d be willing to be paid less; I replied thusly: “If I drop the fee, so too will drop my ability to make a living as a professional swimming instructor. It also sets a precedent for selling my teaching short. I know I am *good* at teaching swimming, and have spent many hours honing my skills to do this. There’s learning the fundamentals and complexities of swimming; accommodating different learning styles & adapting my teaching style; various forms of communication; working in challenging circumstances; taking professional development courses; keeping my skills and qualifications up to date (which I have to pay for myself). And practising my arms off. I get that it’s costly, but it’s hard for me to negotiate how I earn my bread and butter.”

    Thanks for helping me to clarify my position. Good on ya!

    • says

      Awesome image – thanks for the link! :-) My writing-week seems to be going a bit like that… though I did want to do the things I’d taken on.

      Hope you find plenty of clients who totally understand why you’re worth the money!