Tuesday, September 13, 2011

You're Worth It: Thoughts on Professionalism

Dilemmas can be opportunities.
Conversations about worth, value, and dilemmas have been popping up all over the place in my life lately - from acting to family to church stuff. A good friend of mine had a particularly blistering example. Let's call her Amelia. Amelia was offered a job with a Shakespearean educational touring company doing Midsummer Night's Dream, one of her favorite plays. The contract was 4 months long, which meant four months of travel in her homestate near her family and 4 months of full-time theater work - two HUGE forces of attraction that any homesick, starving New York City artist is almost powerless to resist. However, Amelia's decision was clouded by a con list. The problem was that Amelia had worked for this touring company twice before on two seperate tours and was a model employee each time - obviously, since they wanted her back for a third round even without auditioning her. And therein lay the dilemma, which poured some gall down Amelia's throat: this company was not only refusing to give her a raise, but in fact had cut her pay down to $100 less per week than her previous years' rate.

 Amelia was torn. Amelia was bound to the fiery torture device of Dilemma and could not break free. She had long conversations with her boyfriend, her actor friends, her relatives. Like most actors, Amelia's brain was wired to JUMP at the chance of any work - especially paid work - and be excited to have the chance to act...but there was something about this deal that screamed, "WARNING: SHORT END OF THE STICK!!! DO NOT BITE"

So where's the solution to Amelia's problem? Where can she go for help? The only answer is, inside. She can go inside herself and decide for herself what her value and worth are as an artist and as a professional.

Way back in my undergraduate days I took an economics class that taught me about opportunity cost, among other things. (We also learned a subcorollary to opportunity cost, the universal principle of TANSTAAFL: There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.) Opportunity cost does not just pertain to the dry world of spreadsheets and quarterly reports. Every decision we make in our lives has an opportunity cost. Which is to say, whenever we make a decision and choose an option, we are excluding other options. When you go out to dinner at a Thai restaurant and choose to have the Pad Thai, you are effectively choosing not to have the Lad Naar, Fried Rice, or Coconut Soup. When you buy a monthly metro pass for the subway, you are choosing not to take a taxi, bicycle, or limo. For my poor angsty friend Amelia to take this contract, she would be passing up the great gaping unknown potential that could come out of 4 months of auditions in New York. She'd be missing Equity (union) auditions. She'd be missing classes and better paying dayjobs. Not to mention, this job was not offering her any free lunches.

If we don't value ourselves, who will?

On top of opportunity cost, Amelia would be taking a definite hit in the solar plexus. She was hurt that her employers would offer her such a bad financial package after two successful seasons when them. This raised issues of company integrity, loyalty, satisfaction and respect. But let's not lay all the blame at the hands of The Man. Amelia, you and I all have the power of decision and an even greater power: the power of our own worth.

So my question for myself today is: what is the opportunity cost of setting our self-value too low? As a professional in any field in this economy, we know what it means to feel the pressure of desperation and need. "We want to just have an income. Any income. Income at all. Please!!!!" Even so, if we take last year's job at a paycut, does that help our pocketbooks, careers, or souls?

There comes a point in every career where a person decides it's time to move on. But how do you know when that time is right for you? This is particularly tricky as an actor, in a field where every person's career is so individually different. Another friend of mine just bought into the Unions even though he has no union credits - just because he is tired of doing non-union jobs and feels that this is the right time for him to move on. I, on the other hand, hesitate to pass up non-union work. It's such an individual journey.

But when I think of my friend Amelia, I feel a fire burning in my belly at the unfairness of her dilemma. The bottom line is, if we never stick up for ourselves we'll never get paid what we're worth. If we don't ask hard questions and make hard calls, we'll never step up that proverbial ladder of success to the next rung. A professor of mine in graduate school always used to say, "You are the one who has to to establish your worth." We all used to stare at her suspiciously, thinking, "Yeah right lady. Like I have that power. How do you establish your own worth in this business?"  Now, after pounding the pavement for a year and a half, I think I understand a little better what she was getting at.  There's a difference between being a diva and being a professional, just as there is a difference between being a greenhorn and knowing what you're worth.  Sticking up for yourself professionally doesn't make you a jerk, it makes you a professional. It can be a beautiful, classy move to make, a thing of integrity and steel.

Wouldn't it be nice to have cue cards for all decisions?
As an actor, that can be a scary gray area. Does it mean turning down a job that doesn't pay enough - even if your immediate alternative is no job? Does it mean saying no to doing nudity in a film or pilot that some part of you feels might be your big break? All of us have to face these questions individually and listen to our own gut reactions. My Dad always says that it takes 5 minutes to be honest with yourself. Lately, as I face dilemmas of wage and time commitments and professional recognition, I find myself listening to my gut more and more to guide me in the right direction. It's  worth it to recognize my own worth. Besides, if I am not willing to take the risk and value myself as a professional, how can I ask others to do so?

*images thanks to poundingheartbeat.com, photobucket.com, and allarminda.com

1 comment:

  1. Jeanne Marie ClementSeptember 25, 2011 at 3:18 AM

    No doubt, these are tough times, which only adds to the toughness of tough decisions! What strong characters these times are building! My hat is off to you, JJP, You have the guts to make a success acting!