Underpaid and overworked as a freelancer? Freelancing vet Soness Stevens debunks the myths that could be preventing you from earning — and knowing — your full professional value.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Have you ever gotten an email about a promising gig in your line of work? It sounds fantastic — until you get to the line that says something like “Due to our limited budget, we can only pay you $X” and the figure is considerably less than you want to be paid.
Still, you take the work at the amount offered.
Maybe you want to get more experience, you need to earn some money (even if it’s less than you’d like), or you hope that doing a good job now will lead to being paid more next time.
“What we may not realize,” says freelancer Soness Stevens in a TEDxYNU talk, “is that when we don’t value ourselves by asking for what we’re worth, it doesn’t just affect us; it affects the companies, our neighbors, and everyone the buck doesn’t get passed down to.”
Long gone are the days of people working for a single company, business or organization for their entire professional lives as freelance work becomes increasingly common in many fields. In the US, for example, around 35 percent of people worked as freelancers in 2019, a 5 percent increase since 2014. As this kind of work becomes a larger piece of the economy, it’s vital for freelancers to know how to navigate.
Stevens, who is based in Kanagawa, Japan, has been freelancing for more than 20 years as a speaking coach and voice actor. She is very aware of the misconceptions that freelancers have about themselves, particularly when it comes to money. “I’ll call them myths,” Stevens says, “because I used to think the same things too.”
According to Stevens, here are five myths that freelancers tell themselves about their work, their pay and their worth:
Myth #1: “If I do good work, the client will see it and pay me more in the future.”
Stevens says this is the wrong approach, because it ends up devaluing the work of freelancers — yourself and others too. If a client hires you, you clearly have a skill set that is important and valuable. So, you deserve to be paid an acceptable wage, one that reflects your true worth.
What’s more, Stevens points out, is that the prices freelancers accept from clients ends up setting the standard for everyone else. If most freelancers accept substandard wages, this trickles down into clients’ rate for future freelancers, making it harder for them to negotiate better wages. “If there are more people taking jobs at that rate, and more professionals saying, ‘Well, it can’t be helped,’” says Stevens, “then we don’t have any ability to speak for ourselves.”
To prevent this from happening, Stevens believes freelancers should be more open about their rates, fees and experience with their peers. This gives everyone involved the information they need to make better decisions. Although it feels uncomfortable to talk about your experiences openly, doing so can result in more equitable pay as the standard. “When we have transparency, when we have conversations, that’ll make a difference,” she says.
But what’s an acceptable wage? Well, there’s no easy answer – it’s different for everyone. Talk to fellow freelancers in your field to understand what is considered standard in your industry. Stevens recommends creating your own “pricing menu” for the jobs you do that can serve as a frame of reference for yourself, your peers and potential clients. “If you have a menu of different prices, people will know that you mean business.”
Myth #2: “To build up a decent body of work, I should take any jobs that are offered. I might even do some jobs for no pay, just so I can get the experience.”
“I get it that when you’re starting out and you’ve got zilch, you want to take what you get,” says Stevens. “But, at what point do you build up enough work?”
Just because you don’t think your experienced “enough” doesn’t mean you should accept lackluster pay. Freelance work is dependent on your skills and knowledge. You’ve probably put in significant time and energy mastering your craft, whether it’s writing, photography, IT, engineering or law, and it’s a skill that businesses need. So if you have what it takes to complete a given job for a client, then that is “enough.”
“If you’re good enough to do the work, then you’re good enough to get paid,” says Stevens. Even if you think there’s room for you to improve, you still deserve to get paid for your work in money, not just in “experience.”
One way to look at it, per Stevens, is “if people are coming to you and asking you to do something, it has value.” No matter how you see your skills, if others are asking for help, your skill set has worth for others.
Myth #3: “If I want to make it as a freelancer, I can’t be too picky — it could hurt my reputation.”
When you freelance, “beggars can’t be choosers” is the wrong mentality to have. It’s important to be discerning about the type of work you pursue. You shouldn’t feel pressured into accepting work you don’t want to do or that does against your values just because you’re worried about seeming “difficult.”
Taking on unsatisfying work “builds anger and resentment,” Stevens says. She also adds how saying yes to dissatisfying or underpaid opportunities can leave you on a “never-ending treadmill of overworked [and] overtime, which is overkill.”
Perhaps you’re concerned that if you turn down work, you won’t be offered anything else. Stevens says there’s more work out there than you think. “Opportunities are like love,” she believes. “Love isn’t finite, like apple pie. Love is infinite, like pi — 3.1415926…”
Myth #4: “I’m a freelancer – and not a business person — so I’m just not good at discussing money with clients.”
Dear freelancers, it’s time to revise your identity. “If you have to think about your personal brand, clients or getting paid, then you’re in business and you are a business person,” says Stevens.
As a freelancer, you are both your boss and your business. Your expertise is what makes you money. When freelancers don’t see themselves as business people, they are unintentionally diminishing their expertise and, by extension, their work, according to Stevens. “When we start owning the fact that our work has value — intrinsic value — and that clients and people are monetizing it, then we can stop giving it away and start standing by it and asking for what we’re worth.”
Remember: Whenever you accept or reject an opportunity, you are making a business decision. Take responsibility for your actions, knowing that your choices will shape your work and your career. But never be afraid to ask fellow freelancers for help with anything unfamiliar, such as contracts. Being taken seriously as a freelancer goes beyond how clients and the outside world see you – it’s also about how you see yourself.
Myth #5: “I’m in constant competition with other freelancers in my field, so if I turn down a low-paying job, the client is just going to find someone else.”
Freelancing can often feel like you’re trying to catch a big fish in a small pond alongside many, many others. You think if you’re lucky enough to catch it, you’ve won and someone else lose, and vice versa.
But what is the pool of opportunities was bigger – more like the ocean with many fish? Or like many oceans with many, many fish?
Well it actually is, but it’ll take some work. One way to expand your pool of opportunities is to is to interact with your fellow freelancers to learn about potential gigs and openings. When you come across other freelancers, talk to them about work. Keep in touch with them, regularly getting together for coffee to talk about your recent and upcoming experiences and projects. Join professional organizations in your area that help to bring freelancers together, seek out coworking spaces, or go to meetups.
Talking to peers has helped Stevens in the past. While doing voiceover work in Japan, she struck up a conversation with another cast member. “The woman was like ‘Your personality would be perfect for the show I’m in. It’s a nationwide musical,’” Stevens says. Despite having no professional singing experience, she followed through on the recommendation and got an audition. Eventually, she got a part touring across Japan, all from chatting with another freelancer.
Talking to other freelancers means that you must stop regarding them as competitors and start seeing them as allies and supporters. Be open about your work, your pay and your gigs. “If we talk about opportunities and not hold onto them like precious resources, we can instead look at them as though they are a love can be open and shared,” says Stevens.
Watch her TEDxYNU talk now: