Are You Worth Your Wage?

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Okay, don’t close this window yet. There’s a point to all of this. I know many people have adversarial relationships with their employers, but this will help shed some light on how they see you as an employee, which will ultimately make your working relationship better. This will most likely lead to raises, promotions, happy working conditions, and more control over how you work. Worst-case scenario: You lose three minutes, and decide you deserve a better job. That’s valuable to know too.

First off, most employees have no idea how much they actually cost their employer. In this fantastic article about salary negotiation, Patrick McKenzie writes, “[G]et into the habit of seeing employees like employers see them: in terms of fully-loaded costs.  To hire someone you need to pay for their salary, true, but you also have taxes, a benefits package, employer contributions to retirement, healthcare, that free soda your HR department loves mentioning in the job ads, and what have you.” Depending on a variety of factors, for many jobs, “a reasonable guesstimate is between 150% and 200% of their salary.” You cost more than what you see on your paycheck. When I say it like that, it seems obvious, but it’s a significant jump. Your $20/hour is more like $30/hour. This is just a quick aside, but keep it in mind if you didn’t know this already. Let’s get to the meat of this article.

Let’s say you have a below-average job. It’s not too stressful, and you spend one of your eight hours a day just Facebook-ing. Regardless of how you spend your time, every three minutes, someone from accounting walks by your desk, taps you on the shoulder, and hands you $1. “Thank you,” you say in this absurdist scenario. “See you in three minutes. I’m gonna watch a cat video now.” Here’s the thing: From an employer’s point of view, this is exactly what’s happening. If you make $20/hour, by the numbers, this isn’t an absurdist scenario at all. It’s just math! Now, I get that you can’t be directly productive every minute you’re at your workplace, but I started asking myself, “Am I worth what I’m being paid? Even at my (now-)$16/hour job, am I actually making my employer $1 every 3m45s? Not only that, but am I making them profit that will also cover the cost of keeping the lights on and the store open? Is it notably better than the 7% they’d be earning in an index fund instead?”

When you think about it that way, simply employing you is a goddamn risk. If the position is a mutually beneficial fit though, you’ll be earning them boatloads of money using a passionately developed set of skills, and they’ll be paying you well to develop those skills until you’re making boatloads of money too! Remember how we talked about going “above and beyond in work and business”? I’ve been using real-time pay calculators as a motivational tool at my day job. When I see it tick up $10 and I know I’ve actually done nothing, I don’t particularly feel good about myself. It’s a gentle nudge towards productivity, and I’m thankful for that. I always strive to do more now, and I’m certain it shows.

This is even more insane with my wedding photography. To a client who’s paying me ~$400/hour to shoot, I’m getting paid $1 every nine seconds. Am I creating art worth $1 every nine seconds? I damn well better be to charge my rate. Knowing this helps me kick ass at my job!

Think about how you make money for your company. Would you hire you, or are you being a leech? Would you be more productive doing something better? Are you worth $X every X minutes? If you’re not, it may be time to find a better fit.

As both an employee and an employer, I’ve seen it from both sides. Are you worth your wage?

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Why I Left the Highest-Paying Job of My Life

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Before I found wedding photography, I’d gone to film school for two years. Even now, my diploma for Motion Picture Production hangs in my office, quietly mocking me when I could’ve used my tuition money far more effectively. Sure, some bragging rights came out of it – I directed my first short at 17 and have a meagre IMDb page which is kinda cool – but for the most part, I’m done with the film industry, even though I could’ve gotten rich off it. This is the story of why I left a $100,000/year job.

I’m theoretically qualified to be an on-set electrician. As far back as 2006, I was already lamping indies and rubbing elbows with the likes of Chloë Sevigny. I eventually landed permittee status with IATSE 891, got put on even bigger productions, and now I can’t even remember them all. I know I worked on “Fringe” and “The 100”, but the rest is a blur. I didn’t actually like my job. Before we get into why though, here’s a look at the pay. Film electricians currently make $29.73/hour. We get paid that for the first 8 hours a day, then it’s time-and-a-half for the next 4 hours. A typical electrician day is 12 hours. Per day, we can expect to make $416.22. Do five days a week and that’s $2,081.10. Get on a show call, do four weeks, and that’s $8,324.40/month. Do that for a year, and you’re just under $100,000! For the right person, this is a goddamn dream! You’re probably asking WHY THE FUCK AREN’T YOU DOING THIS. Well, it’s because I seriously can’t be bothered. Here’s why.

1) Though I’m theoretically qualified, I suck at this job. I’m not great at lifting heavy things, mentally keeping track of hundreds of feet of cabling isn’t a strong point of mine, and 12-hour days are VERY draining for me. By the end of even one day, I’m mental mush. Five days in a row, and I shouldn’t even be driving home from set. 2) 60 hours a week FOR A FRICKIN’ YEAR?!? Pass. I live on 20 hours a week now. Those 20 hours support my lifestyle well, and I’m living HEAL with no problems. 3) Most of the job is manual labour. I’d be working under the gaffer, who in turn takes his direction from the DP. Though “lighting a film set” sounds cool, I’m really just plugging in lights where they tell me to, then I sit around in silence while they film. When they ask me to unplug the light, I unplug the light and haul it back to the truck. Continue forever. Like, FOREVER. On-set lighting is NOT creative work. 4) “Mental illness is rife” in the entertainment industry. 5) We’re literally talking about a line of work where someone can die ON SET and production will just resume normally two days later. Or how about the time someone else was killed and “no one from the show” even attended the funeral? THIS IS JUST IN BC. This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME.

There are more reasons, but I think I’ve said enough. $416.22 isn’t enough for 12 hours of backbreaking labour and dangerous working conditions when I already bill $400/hour for wedding photography. It’s just not worth it. Realistically, I’m aware I could do this “just for a little bit”, but I don’t even want to dip my toe in the water. I’ve been in film work since 2005, and I’ve seen enough to know I won’t take film as a serious moneymaker ever again. Even $100,000/year isn’t worth the stress, the punishing hours, the lack of creativity, the boredom, and so on, and so on. It just sucks. And I’ll take “poorer but happier” any day. Allow me to leave you with a story.

*****

Since I used to work in film, I can spot film people a mile away. This time, the giveaway was the “2AD” hastily scrawled on his walkie. I knew he was a show’s 2nd Assistant Director. He brought his bottles to the counter, and I started ringing him through. It was 2012 or 2013, and I was just a cashier that night. Even then, I knew film work wasn’t for me anymore.

“Hey, I used to be film industry too!” I said. “What show are you on?”

“Ah, I can’t exactly tell you that,” he said.

“Oh, sorry. I understand. NDAs and all.” I bagged his bottles, and handed it to him.

“Thanks.”

I smiled. “You’re welcome. Hey, I got out of film work a few years ago because it was kinda stressing me out. How’re you finding it?”

He looked over his shoulder, then looked back at me sadly. “Uhh, just between you and me…” he said, “It’s kinda killing my marriage.”

He grabbed his bag and left.

That day, I resolved to never let financial success get in the way of My Life. Even now, I understand success comes at a cost.

How high a price are YOU willing to pay?

Career Burnout and What To Do About It (Pt. 2)

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For the first post in this series, click here.

“A” wrote in: It was about 3 years into my second job in the engineering world so 8 year’s total. I was having trouble focusing, I was easily irritated, I wasn’t taking care of myself like I should have been (food and exercise wise). I ended up having appendicitis for over 1 year (yes crazy I know) and that only impacted my health more. It got to the point my bosses where being super understanding and letting me work when I could because they didn’t want to lose me. But I would delay deadlines, feel sicker then I actually was and make excuses not to go. I just wasnt happy and it was hurting everyone. When I finally was allowed to switch (a pay decrease of nearly half and, I now work in retail) my life improved drastically. I’m 100% happier, life is going well, I’m not looking for drama and my relationship is the best it’s ever been. My health is getting my better and I’ve lost weight!” (Editor’s note: This isn’t our artist friend, “A”. Totally different people.)

I heard lots of responses like this one. “A” here was bogged down with “Drafting, data entry and project management” and just wasn’t feeling it anymore. She didn’t include numbers, but we figure she was making decent money. If working retail gives her roughly half what she used to make and she was eight years into an engineering career, let’s pin that around $50,000. Let’s also assume she makes and lives off $25,000 now. First off, good on her for keeping expenses down enough for a career shift. Even assuming she spends everything she makes, she’s on par with how much I spend in a year. (I spend roughly $20,000/year now, but I don’t have rent. She does.) If she’s managing to save money too, she’s kicking my ass! Second, it’s awesome that she knew when to walk away. Here’s why.

This article suggests a “stressful workplace could take 33 years off your life expectancy”, but if you read the article, they’re sensationalizing a little bit. For our purposes, let’s say half that – 16.5 years. Average life expectancy in Canada is 81.24 years, so what happens when we take 16.5 years off that? Uh, it looks like people subject to a stressful workplace drop dead just before their 65th birthday. So much for that RRSP! Clearly, workplace stress will not only kill you, but it’ll also make your financial goals moot. After all, you want a long and prosperous life, right? Anyway, “A” decided to look after her health and mental wellbeing, and her life has improved dramatically. I maintain that no matter what field you choose initially, there will come a day when you may want a change. For that to become even a remote possibility, you’ll want to start saving ASAP.

This is what happens when you’re frugal and/or have savings to fall back on: increased life flexibility, and keys to the golden handcuffs.

“A” escaped.

*****

Everyone is going to be different, but I quit shooting weddings 2 years ago (after 15+ years) and no longer take paid photography work. I could not be happier.”

“J” used to shoot weddings with me. It’s been years since we’ve done one together, but we’ve had some wild adventures. Because of photography, we’ve ended up in car accidents, kink dungeons, and more than a few situations I can’t talk about on a PG blog. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for the world. That’s why I was sad when he announced he was quitting wedding photography. I thought, “Why give up?”

I was wrong, of course. He wasn’t giving up. In talking with entrepreneurs who have “burned out”, sometimes the dream jobs we craft for ourselves aren’t much different than the trappings of a day job. The only difference is we “own” our jobs, but they’re still jobs. I think of my photography career as my day job, for example. And just like any other work situation, sometimes you need to step away when your career isn’t in alignment with what you want anymore. Even I’m sometimes tempted to leave photography because regular pay at a regular job is FAR EASIER than running your own business. Entrepreneurs are a weird bunch. For every success story that lasts for decades, there are some who didn’t quite attain their ideal, yet soldier on anyway. Sometimes, we build our own prisons.

The romantic notion of creating our own work based on our passions is a great story. I love shooting weddings, but I don’t publicize the bout of depression I dealt with last year and how it set me so far back in my projects, I gave partial refunds to my customers out of my own pocket. People don’t see the months we go without work at the beginning of our careers, living off ramen and unhealthy amounts of alcohol. And yet, us entrepreneurs are proud motherfuckers great at self-promotion, shouting “LOOK AT WHAT WE BUILT”, believing that creating our own work is somehow better than what Safeway Joe does for a living. For some of us, clinging to a business we created, whether or not it meets our goals, is the only thing we know how to do, and that’s how we ACTUALLY burn out.

Some jobs are objectively better than others, but there’s a myth that self-employment is better than regular employment as long as you can pay the bills. It’s not. I say find employment wherever you feel most fulfilled and, if possible, take money out of the equation by living on less and saving as much as you can using the advice on this blog. It’s quite possible that avoiding burnout is as simple as changing gears every few years and going back to our passions only when it feels right.

You don’t “work for someone”. You work for you. Seriously, just save some cash and do whatever the fuck it is you want to do, even if that means being a barista. Climb the corporate ladder, or don’t. Start your own business, or don’t. Retire early, or don’t. As long as you do what’s right for you, you won’t burn out.

The only imperative is you save enough money to afford your own freedom.

*****

Continue the discussion on Facebook. I heard from dozens of people on career burnout, so give us a like and chat with us there.

Career Burnout and What To Do About It (Pt. 1)

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This article took weeks to write, and is coming to you in parts. In researching for it and wading through hundreds of reader messages, I was forced to reexamine certain assumptions I’d made about career choices and burnout. I learned lots. For the sake of keeping this post concise, I’m making “burnout” a catch-all spectrum ranging from “losing passion in a job” to “being unable to do a job because of exhaustion”. In all cases though, burnout WILL most likely happen to you, so here’s how to manage it. That’s what this post is ultimately about.

I heard from a wide variety of people on burnout. Some were entrepreneurs like me, who’d found their dream job only to realize it wasn’t all sunshine and ponies. Others went down the more practical route and chose a well-paying job over their dream job, only to regret it. Others chose very lucrative day jobs that ended up taking a major toll on their health. One respondent almost died when job stress drove his blood pressure to 240/120, and stories like that were COMMON! As we go on, I’ll be peppering my insights with reader messages. Enjoy.

*****

“I used to be an engineer and now I’m a train driver and hate it”, “M” wrote. “it has ended up where I have to work very anti social hours which I hate. I’m at work on Friday night until 1 am Saturday morning which is my day off. Then straight back to work at 5 am Sunday. Also I have to deal with a lot of very horrible people. Just yesterday someone literally took a shit on the train. Have to deal with drunks, fighting and I’ve even had an attempted suicide. Also I find my work very boring and unrewarding.”

I asked him how much he made.

“Minimum wage for someone over 21 in this country is £7.50 per hour before tax which is 20% at the moment”, he said. “I trained for many years as an engineer. I worked for various companies where I enjoyed the work but couldn’t find somewhere that paid enough. I was earning about £20k. I now earn £34.5k”.

Ah, fuck. Another case of The Golden Handcuffs. FYI, £20,000 is $33,000 in Canadian dollars and £34,500 is $57,000. Now, you MIGHT anticipate my response being my usual condescending arrogance, but given what I’ve learned, I’m actually NOT recommending “just live frugal and go back to engineering”. Granted, $33,000 is TOTALLY LIVABLE, but here’s the catch: I’ve now heard from people who burned out at their dream jobs too. What’s stopping that from happening to “M” if he goes back to engineering, and for less pay too?

I recommend building up some “Fuck You Money” first to afford extra flexibility. “M” is burned out now and maybe other jobs to recharge are necessary, but he needs a cash cushion to fall back on. One reader wrote in, feeling as though her job cost her her personal life, and she now longs for “a simple coffee shop job”. Fuck, do that! You know how millennials are now notorious for job-hopping? IT’S BECAUSE WE(‘RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO) SEEK SELF-ACTUALIZATION AS OUR FIRST PRIORITY. I say work where you’re at while the money’s good, save all you can, and when you have enough to fuck off and change gears ENTIRELY for a few years, do it. Life wasn’t meant to be lived doing the same thing every day for 40 years. The most interesting people I know have had 5+ jobs. No matter where you work, you’ll inevitably run into some form of burnout given enough time. When you can’t take it anymore, get out and do something new. It doesn’t even have to be a total departure from your job. Maybe scale down your hours and work on that 10-to-2 on the side.

My life story has already involved MANY career changes, and I’m only 28. I burned out when I worked in the film industry, and at one point, that was my dream job! I’d wanted to work on movies since I got my first job at a video store, and there was literally a point in time when I could walk down the aisles and go, “worked on that, worked on that, worked on that”. It was pretty goddamn cool. I rose up in the ranks, from starting as an indie film PA to working on NBC’s lighting team during the 2010 Olympics. I even became an IATSE 891 permittee. And yet, the long hours made that job unsustainable. I left a job that paid $400+ a day, five days a week, in order to work less than 30 days a year as a photographer, DRASTICALLY cutting my income. Why? I had the Fuck You Money to do it. Build up your FYM. Think of it as your Freedom Fund. It’s your freedom to work wherever, for whatever, whenever!

Now, here’s the scary thing: I -know- I’m gonna burn out with photography someday. I already kinda have, since I say no all the time now. Yet, I’m not worried. One reader mentioned that burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. You can take a few years off to do something different and go back to a career, whether you love it or not. Now, that’s an important point. Our career lives now are different than career lives in the past. Millennials have so many options now, it’d be silly if we didn’t at least explore SOME of them. My point? Here’s your TLDR:

Build up Fuck You Money. Use it to explore job opportunities you think you’d enjoy. Burnout isn’t permanent, and you can jump back into an old career anytime you want. Don’t be scared of change, and beware of golden handcuffs.

In the meantime, I’m preparing for the very real possibility I may hate photography someday, even though I love, love, LOVE it now. Crafting a Plan B as we speak.

More insights coming your way in Part 2.

If You Have to Pay for It, You’re Doing It Wrong

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What’s fun for you? Is it travel? Maybe it’s fine food or wine. What about entertainment? Maybe you love going to concerts. Maybe you want to meet celebrities. Maybe you love playing with the latest gadgets, or driving nice cars. What would you do more of if you had unlimited resources? Got a mental picture? Good. Now, what if I told you you could have all that for free? It might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible once you start doing just one thing: choosing your Career not based on pay, but your passions.

If you’re reading this blog, I’m gonna guess you make okay money and aren’t looking to be a wasteful spender for the long haul. Hopefully, that’ll translate to more money saved. Let’s say you sock away $5,000 in disposable income. You’ve already maxed out your RRSP and TFSA, and this is cash you can have some fun with. You’ve been busting ass at work and it’s time to let loose, so you book your trip to Santorini and stay for two weeks. Flight and accommodations eat up $2,500 and $1,000 goes into food at ritzy restaurants. You take a few day trips, ride a few donkeys, and rent an ATV to zip around the island. You find their brewery and drink the best IPA in Greece. You even hit all the clubs along the water. It’s great. Before you know it, you’re $5,000 poorer, but with once-in-a-lifetime memories. I think that’s a fair trade.

Well, I went to Santorini in 2012. It was free.

*****

I’ve been an arts nerd all my life, and never really gave a shit about money. Being a doctor or a lawyer never interested me. Those were office jobs, and I detested office jobs. I wanted to explore the world, go to concerts, and drink expensive wine. I would’ve taken “starving artist” over “fat guy in a red BMW” any day, and since I knew that early on, I started taking steps to build a life I could be proud of.

In 2008, shortly after I became a photographer, I got into shooting conferences. The jobs were small at first, but they were always out-of-town. I was 20 when I visited Victoria, BC and shot ICCA 2008 with my colleague, Jon. A year later, I was in San Francisco for WCLC 2009. I stayed in the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, a $350/night hotel. I even had a per diem for meals. Eventually, more travel opportunities came up. I got into weddings. I saw Toronto. I saw China. In 2012, I was in Santorini for a week to shoot my friend’s wedding. I saw it all, free.

Back home, I started a music blog. I would go to shows and write reviews. I’d give them the best damn concert photography they’d seen in Vancouver. Soon, I was given access to the artists. I met Bat For Lashes and Lykke Li. I interviewed Alexisonfire. I photographed R.E.M. and The Pretenders. I even made money selling my shots.

Meanwhile, I also got geeky about beer, wine and whisky. My side jobs in liquor stores gave me access again. Whisky festivals, brewery invites, wine courses; all paid for by someone else.

I’d done it. I turned everything that would’ve cost me money into something Free. Work was no longer a grind to get to the thing I wanted to do, it WAS the thing I wanted to do. All it took was reframing Work as something other than “work”. It was just another awesome part of my awesome life because I chose to have a non-shitty job!

You can do it too.

*****

Follow your passion.

You’ll probably be a little poorer if you take my advice, and I know that. I know most of you can’t just abandon your $75,000 annual salaries and become Hollywood screenwriters, but wearing a pair of golden handcuffs is still wearing handcuffs. Do you want to count down the days until your next vacation, or do you want to be on vacation all the time? Do you want to spend $5,000 for a fleeting moment of happiness, or do you want to make $5,000 every time you leave the country on some exotic job? Do you want to be the fat guy in the red BMW, or do you want to be the starving artist who got so good at his job, he eats like a king for free?

Money can buy experiences. How you live your life can render money irrelevant though, and the moment you don’t need to worry about money anymore is the moment you become truly Free. That’s what we all want, right? Give me a call when your life and experiences are FREE.

In the meantime, I’m gonna get packing. I’ve got another trip to San Francisco lined up.

It’s honestly too bad I’m paying for this one like a sucker.