All foreplay, no sex

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever had a client who talked a lot about doing business with you — but never actually did it?

Like that.

In a time of rising costs and taxes, I understand why some people are reluctant to commit to laying out cash. I’m hardly a wild spender, but I keep writing checks — albeit small ones — to my assistant, even for ideas we’ve had that just didn’t work out as we’d hoped. If I only spent money on sure things (oooh, sign me up!), I’d be a lot richer.

We all want ROI — return on investment. But how many of us know exactly, beforehand, which business decision is a totally sure thing and which is not?

When someone decides they might want to work with me, there are hundreds of articles on-line they can read to see my product. (But how heavily were they edited?) Do some due diligence and ask around; we all have reputations, for good and ill. Some writers’ copy arrives clean and ready to edit, while others offer what I call Swiss cheese journalism — all holes, little substance. I recently met a writer who felt compelled to tell me how Very Successful he is. Then I had lunch this week with someone who previously worked closely with him and told me a very different tale.

When you work for yourself, cashflow is key, which includes deciding when someone’s just kicking your tires and is never actually going to hire you or pay you for your time and skills.

English: The lattice work on Saks & Co's store...
English: The lattice work on Saks & Co’s store on Fifth Avenue in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last year, I did an event for my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” at Saks, an upscale store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A woman stopped by my table and bought a copy and I couldn’t believe my luck — she works in HR at another huge retailer. It was, I hoped, a golden opportunity for future consulting, or a speaking engagement or book sales.

And then began a months-long courtship that went exactly….nowhere. She’d read my book, seen my video, had plenty of time to assess my potential value to her company. She would email me to arrange a phone call, with no agenda or plan. Our one in-person meeting, when I was in her city far away from me, got cancelled after she took a horrible fall. The call arranged for 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, (she simply assigned me the time, horribly inconvenient for me), she completely blew off.

I finally emailed her a terse note suggesting that if or when she wished to do business with me, I’d be happy to hear from her.

Crickets!

Another Canadian recently decided they might want me to keynote a major conference, with barely a month’s notice — paying my own way to Toronto from New York for no fee. Really?

Then they simply stopped returning my assistant’s calls and emails. This sort of hand-wringing, passive-aggressive, risk-averse bullshit is crazy. Rude. Cowardly.

The ongoing challenge of working for yourself is determining which potential clients really are, eventually, going to open their wallets and get on with it — and those just dicking you around because:

1) they’re indecisive; 2) they’re cheap; 3) they don’t have the authority to hire or pay you; 4) they’re terrified of any risk; 5) they don’t have the funds 6) and/or don’t want you to know it; 7) it makes them feel powerful to know they can.

I hate wasting time. I hate wasting energy. I really try not to do it to others. It’s disrespectful. It’s a time-suck. And all the time you waste on foreplay, so to speak, you could be enjoying the real deal with someone who actually really does want to do business with you.

Have you run into this?

How do you suss these losers out (more) quickly so they don’t waste your time?

The writer’s week (hack, cough, wheeze)

Some of you may have noticed I’ve slowed down the frequency of when I post. After three and a half years and 1,300 posts, I’m a little pooped.

Truthfully, while the blog adds five to 15 new subscribers every day, readership is stagnant, which has dimmed my enthusiasm. There are only so many hours in the day, and most them I have to devote to income-producing work.

But I’ve been busy as hell, even if less visible here.

I loved my hooky day last Friday, feeling healthy again for the first time in three weeks. As North American readers know, we’re in the middle of a major flu epidemic. So I thought, great! I’m healthy again, and did the usual Kelly thing, of 0 to 60 in six seconds. Everyone in our family seems to run at two speeds, reallyfast or asleep.

Saturday I spent much of the afternoon — sexy! — reading three white papers about the use of mobile technology in retail, an issue I needed to understand before some meetings later this week. Then I spent more time on the phone grilling two friends in Silicon Valley, who understand tech, about an idea I have so I could start to see every possible problem and obstacle.

Basically, I’m living the very story I wrote, trying to reinvent myself and transfer some of my skills, knowledge and contacts into a few new areas, especially ones that pay a lot better than journalism. In March 2007, I kept working (while ill) and landed in the hospital with a 104 degree temperature with pneumonia. Three days on an IV taught me that when I get sick (rarely), rest.

(Oh, right, here I am anyway.)

This time, I’m checking my temperature very regularly, that’s for sure.

Sunday was fun, as my New York Times business story about people over 50 re-inventing themselves professionally climbed the charts — to 4th most read and 4th most emailed of the entire Sunday paper. Then 258 people commented, from Moscow to Brazil.

It was highly instructive!

I thought Clare Novak, a single 58-year-old, had made a really interesting and adventurous choice by moving to Islamabad to work. But about 95 percent of commenters were appalled — at her choice of country (it’s work!), at her restricted lifestyle there and by the fact (hello, recession?) she even had to leave the United States in order to get a decent job.

Many people — fairly — criticized me for not explicitly mentioning or addressing the elephant in the room, age discrimination. But I felt there wasn’t much to say other than it’s rampant and illegal.

Monday morning, I took a jazz dance class and almost-sort-of-maybe did a pirouette for the first time in three years, wondering how my new hip would hold up. Then I drove into Manhattan to meet a software executive for a business lunch, a man who made me an interesting business proposition to work with his company. I’m not sure where it will lead, but it’s heartening to feel I have value beyond journalism and publishing.

I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Big Show, the annual convention of the National Retail Federation, a place I need to visit to keep up on trends, say hello to contacts and gather story ideas. But to reach the Javits Center meant taking the commuter train and bus, then standing and talking for hours…exhausting and very likely exposing me to tons of germs.

English: aerial view from Empire State Buildin...
English: aerial view from Empire State Building West to One Penn Plaza and Jacob Javits Convention Center at Hudson River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Wednesday morning, I was ill again. As I sat there idly reading email, BBC’s World Have Your Say suddenly asked, from London, if I could watch Obama’s speech on guns — and respond to it, live on the radio, for an hour. Luckily, Javits is a short easy walk to the BBC’s offices, so I did it.

We lost half the show’s time to the Algerian hostage crisis (that’s the news biz). I made some notes and dove in anyway.

Weary, frazzled and increasingly  impatient with the tedious rhetoric of gunners, I told one guest of his “insane paranoia” — which resulted in a hateful email from a listener within hours.

Time to go home and sleep and drink tea.

Advertisement from December 1922 issue of the ...
Advertisement from December 1922 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, showing use of abbreviation “Xmas”. Artwork by Coles Phillips. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’m typing this from the sofa (big exciting change from bed!), warm and calm and enjoying silence. I have been busy pitching a bunch of ideas to everyone from Glamour, Country Living and Ladies Home Journal to a Canadian business magazine. I turned down an offer of $350 from a Canadian newspaper for a story that would have been picked up nationally by their chain (for no additional pay) and would have taken me at least five hours to produce. I try to be thoughtful about what work I commit to. At this point in my life, there are opportunity costs to filling up my work sked with stuff that doesn’t matter much or pay well.

I cashed checks from two private clients for consulting, checked in with the fabulous C. who is putting together my marketing materials for Malled speaking engagements, and set up four phone interviews for Monday and Tuesday. I feel a little better today and plan to sleep all weekend.

I still have to finish two stories next week before we head up to Canada, where we’ll visit my Dad, see friends and I have meetings in Toronto and Montreal.

How was your week?

How waving a sword changed my life

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:

Tenacity

Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.

Fearlessness

In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?

Anticipation

Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.

Observation

The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.

Persistence

Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 

Detachment

Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?

Training.

What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?

Five reasons to freelance — and five not to

English: The Aviation and Missile Command can ...
English: The Aviation and Missile Command can now be found on two popular social media sites, Facebook and Twitter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I lost my last staff job in 2006, at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, from the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I decided to go back to freelancing, a way of life and generally unpredictable income stream that both terrifies and seduces many people. In the ongoing recession here in the United States, millions of people are “freelance” because they simply can’t get hired back into a full-time staff position.

I’ve been freelancing as a journalist, author, editor and writing coach since my second year in university.

I work with a wide variety of clients, writing for The New York Times, (since 1990), magazines like Marie Claire or Smithsonian, selecting and creating on-line slide-shows for HGTV. com.  to helping private individuals whose manuscripts need editing.

Luckily for me, I had role models — growing up in a family where no one counted on a paycheck or pension. My father was a film-maker, my mom a writer and broadcaster and my stepmother wrote for television shows, teaching me by example how to make the cube-free worklife enjoyable and profitable.

Slash your expenses to the bone

I think this is the single most essential element of deciding to quit a job or leave any reliable income stream. If you carry a $5,000 a month mortgage, a $400 a month car payment, private school tuitions and other enormous carrying costs for a lavish lifestyle, freelancing is likely not a choice you will enjoy or be able to sustain. You don’t have to eat ramen or wear burlap, but freelancers must fund every cost alone — including all health and dental fees, sick days, vacation days and retirement. (You will get to write off, up to 30 percent typically, many of your business expenses, whether subscriptions, dues, travel or professional fees.)

Be social media savvy

If you’re going to compete with people like me, who’ve been doing this for years, even decades, you’re entering a crowded field of experts. LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media links will keep you in the loop and let others know you’re ready for work. You must have a terrific website, (with a professional headshot), with a variety of work samples and update it frequently. A smart and helpful blog will keep driving traffic to your sites.

Be a little hungry — all the time

Freelancing is not a good fit for the lazy and undisciplined! The ability to manage your own schedule, a fantastic perk, means you have no boss, co-workers, annual review or external check on your productivity. You must work as many — or more — hours as you did in your loathed cube in an office. You must check in with past, present and future clients consistently. Go to meetings and conferences to meet influential people in your industry. Work will eventually come to you through referrals, but you’ll be chasing it a lot of the time. Remember the salesman’s ABC: Always Be Closing; i.e. you must constantly be closing deals in order to assure plenty of future income.

Think broadly and deeply

In my view, this is the most compelling reason to go freelance. The creative freedom to produce work you value, to work with people you admire and enjoy, to know your work is making a significant difference in the world is worth a great deal. It won’t pay the rent or electricity bill, but it will remind you why you’ve made this choice. With its freedom, you can travel whenever, wherever and however often you can afford — or find a client to fund it. You can attend conferences and meetings that intrigue you and may lead to totally new and different opportunities. You can visit a museum or gallery or movie in the middle of the afternoon to refresh your weary brain. You can (and should) commit to some regular volunteer activity. All of these are luxuries most employers don’t allow.

You’re 100 percent reliable

In 2007, I landed in a hospital bed with pneumonia because I just kept working as I became more ill. Never again! But I can count the number of deadlines I’ve missed in 30 years on one hand. More like two fingers. Your clients are offering their trust, time, energy, attention and limited budget. They are relying on you. If you or your dependents are in poor health, freelancing is an unwise choice, with no paid sick days and clients who expect results with no whining or excuses. Unless you’re in a coma, or a family member has died, meet your deadlines! (Your competitors are.)

Here are five reasons to keep your job or commit to another one:

You’re lousy with money

Some people just are. You have no idea what’s in your bank account. Your multiple credit card APRs are 20 percent or higher and your FICO score  — (you do know what that is?) — remains scarily low. You have a ton of student debt and/or credit card debt. You want that $3,000 vacation, dammit! Read the essential book, “Your Money or Your Life.” Then decide what matters most to you.

You’re disorganized/lazy

If your employer is putting up with it, you’re lucky. Freelancing offers no room to slack off, because no one will remind you to get back to work or work harder or more efficiently. It’s all up to you.

You have major and inflexible financial commitments

If you’re carrying enormous student debt, have a bunch of dependent kids or a non-working spouse/partner or a car/home likely to require costly repairs, freelance work — which can be feast or famine — might just add a lot more stress to your life. Having a low overhead and little or no debt, (plus three months’ savings, at least and a low-interest line of credit), makes this life choice workable. Sadly, that’s just not where many people are right now.

You’re selfish

Admit it. Some people have zero interest in sharing their skills or time with others. Freelancers who thrive long-term share their time and talent with others. You’ll suddenly need to pick up a gig — or are overwhelmed and need to sub-contract it to a reliable colleague. If you’re not someone who plays well with others, freelancing will be lonely and much tougher.

Your skills or work ethic could be stronger

The freelance life means competing with thousands of veterans offering a ferocious work ethic and fantastic skills. They invest regularly in new technology, attend conferences, take classes, network. The trade-off of working alone means you can’t fall back on tech support, your boss or staff or intern.

Here’s a recent helpful post about freelance life from Toronto writer (and friend) Patchen Barss.

Here’s one of my favorite websites, Freelance Folder.

And here’s a great blog, Dollars and Deadlines, by Chicago-based writer Kelly James-Enger.

If you’ve gone freelance, what are your thoughts?

Doormat or diva? The freelancer’s dilemma

Freelancer (video game)
Freelancer (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll quote from the email directly:

Your invoice got lost in accounting again.

And, no, I’m no longer working for this client. They did pay me the full amount they owed for all the work I’d done, and sent the check Fed Ex — which I insisted on — and they graciously actually did.

The great challenge of working freelance?

When do you stand up for yourself?

When do you accept crap without complaint ?

I started freelancing as a magazine and newspaper journalist when I was still a college undergraduate. I needed that income to pay my bills, for tuition and books and clothes and housing and food, with zero financial aid or any help from my parents. My writing was not some cute hobby or unpaid internship or spare change I planned to blow on shoes or partying. This was the cash I needed to support myself.

So I learned at a very early age to negotiate, to ask for what I thought was fair. I once overheard an editor begging a fellow freelancer, (a man, older than I), not to quit his weekly column, for which he was getting — in 1978 — $200/week. She was paying me $125. I was 19.

Lesson learned. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

But you can’t ask for what you don’t know is possible.

Every woman working for income needs to read this great book, “Women Don’t Ask”, which teaches women to negotiate (better) and explains culturally why we often just don’t even try. Men usually do!

Here’s a long, smart and persuasive blog post about why women freelancers so often undervalue their skills and under-price them as a result.

Like many self-employed people, I work alone in a super-competitive field, one (journalism) that is shrinking and whose pay rates have been cut in recent years even as our living costs soar. That means being up to date on what’s happening out there with my colleagues.

Are they getting screwed, too? (Often, yes. When I posted the comment above on Facebook, I quickly got sympathetic replies from peers across the nation with similar stories.)

Standing up for yourself, all alone, is scary.

If freelancers, (some of whom just refuse to stand up for themselves), just keep on accepting the bullshit — “Oh the person in accounting who writes the checks is on vacation” –– you’re going to be a broke, angry, bitter doormat. The people feeding you this BS certainly got their paychecks! Their lights are on, their phone bills and rent paid.

But if you fight the bullshit and demand better treatment, even politely at first, people can dismiss you as a diva, never work with you again and tell everyone they know you’re a pain in the ass.

Here’s a link to one of my favorite blogs, Freelance Folder, with a list of how and when to say no to a client.

And another, on how to spot a PITA client before signing a contract with them.

This one, on how to avoid burnout, is something I need to read more often.

If you work for yourself, how do you negotiate this crucial balance between assertiveness and deference?

What’s your Plan B?

United (States) Parcel Service.
United (States) Parcel Service. (Photo credit: matt.hintsa)

Van Morrison — one of my faves — has a new album out, Born to Sing: No Plan B.

I’m eager to hear it, but it also made me stop and think…what’s my Plan B?

I have a few, but so far haven’t had to put them into action.

With decent French and Spanish skills, and my interior design training, I feel fairly confident I could pick up a job — albeit likely entry-level — in that field. Worst case, I have a Canadian passport and citizenship and another country in which to legally job-hunt, if necessary.

But I sure don’t want to start a whole new career, which many of my fellow journalists were forced to do after 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008; I’d love to do a story and find out where they have gone. I know one, a man in his 50s, now in culinary school in Florence — but he already owned a home there and has a high-earning spouse, both of which are damn helpful if you have to re-tool, certainly in your 50s or beyond.

As the American economy continues to eject too many people from fields they’re good at and like and pay them well, and thousands of others don’t (yet) have the requisite skills for a new career, whether as an X-ray technician or software designer, it’s a very real and pressing question.

A few days ago, I had a long, lovely breakfast with a good friend, a single woman a bit older than I who needed nine monthswith excellent skills — to land her last job in our field, journalism. In those nine months, she ran through her savings.

After she went home from breakfast, she emailed me: “Laid off.”

Holy shit.

When does this stop?

Will it ever?

If I had kids, which I do not, the only skill I’d suggest they develop to its fullest is the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive economically, pride be damned. I saw an ad this morning in another diner, hiring for waitress, delivery and hostess spots. I called my friend and told her. It’s not her dream job and it’s sure not in her field and God only knows what the pay is like.

But the key word here is hiring.

In 2007, terrified after working so hard through illness I got pneumonia and landed in the hospital for three days with a temperature of 104 and needing an IV, I gave in/up and took a part-time job, selling clothing at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, for $11/hr. No bonus, no commission. Very few raises (like 30 cents an hour.)

I stayed 27 months, finally leaving December 18, 2009. I only left after I was able to replace that income with something else, then as a paid blogger for True/Slant, earning $400 a month without having to stand on my feet for seven hours. (That gig abruptly ended five months later when Forbes bought it and fired almost every one of us who had created the audience that made it attractive. Doncha love it?)

Plan B is never enough. We all, now, need Plans C-Z.

I was able to write a book about that experience, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and interviewed many others nationwide in the retail industry as well. I also got some cash from CBS, who optioned it for a sitcom, which did not happen.

It looked like a Plan B might have shown up, unbidden, as a creative consultant on that show, which would have guaranteed me a  nice four figures every month. Didn’t happen. (It’s being read now by three film/TV agents and I’m pretty optimistic someone else will pick it up.)

I’ve gained some income as a paid speaker since then, but haven’t been able to win the consulting gigs I’d hoped. (Turns out the retail industry has more “consultants” than a dog has fleas, and they all guard their lucrative turf jealously.)

So the success of any Plan B, (or C-Z), hinges on a number of factors:

— Can you segue into another industry, transferring some of your skills, at anywhere near your current earning power?

— If not, how much of a hit can you take and for how long? Forever?

— How much time have you got, really, to learn an entirely new set of skills? Days, weeks, months or years?

— Who is going to pay all your bills, and those of your dependents, as you do?

— Who’s going to pay your tuition or training fees?

— How supportive of this is your partner or spouse? What if it means, as it often does now in this recession, losing 50% or more of your previous income?

— How will you fund your retirement if this is the case?

— What about age discrimination? Everyone over 40 faces it and anyone over 55 is toast.

— How much physical stamina do you have for grueling jobs like retail or waitressing? (Foodservice and retail are the two single largest sources of new jobs in America, yet both at extremely low wages.)

— Do you need to sell your home and/or move to a new area? What if you lose that job?

Have you had to move to Plan B, or beyond?

What did you do?

If you did have to, what would it look like?

Does your spouse vastly out-earn you? Does it matter?

united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web
united states currency seal – IMG_7366_web (Photo credit: kevindean)

Maybe it’s your wife who’s out-earning you, a trend in the United States, where one-third of women now make more money than their husbands.

Here’s today’s New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject, by Hannah Rosin, about the new “middle class matriarchy.”

What we’re really talking about is income disparity, a proxy for the very real issue in every marriage — power: who has it, who has more of it, who uses it and some who, in a nasty fight, abuse it.

Marriage, to me, ideally means two people helping one another to shoulder their burdens, but is it anymore?

Here’s a recent blog post by a fellow freelance writer on this subject:

I realize that I don’t really want to “have it all.” Or, rather, the phrase “having it all” is different for everyone. For me, it means having a balanced life, as a writer and wife and mother and woman. A high-powered career doesn’t interest me, though I wouldn’t want to stop working completely.

Michael and I have always wanted the same, basic things: marriage, children, a house, fulfilling careers. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. Now? I’m a writer…

But then I think about how Michael’s carrying me. How he’s carrying us. And not wanting “it all” (in the conventional six-figure sense) makes me feel guilty.

This writer says she makes about $30,000 a year, working mostly part-time.

That’s a fortune to some people, but not in many parts of the United States, unless you own your home outright, pay almost no property tax and feed your family from your own food production.

Without a significant additional income from your spouse, you’re going nowhere fast.

And husbands know it.

Her post spoke to me because my annual income for two years, also as a freelance writer, was less than $30,000. Things have improved for me since then — my income doubled between 2008 and 2009, and I’m up 11 percent over 2011, with four months’ additional earning power before year’s end.

I still earn far less than my husband — who, thanks to his newspaper union, is stuck with measly 3 percent raises year after year.

So, who’s more “successful”?

Is money our only, our most accurate, measure of worth?

Ask a teacher or those working at lower wages doing essential work…

I began writing for a living in 1978, in my final years of college. Back then, $1/word was normal pay. It was also plenty — my share of the rent was about $300/month and my only other bills were food and phone. Today, costs are way up, I want to retire, (i.e. must save a ton of dough), and many editors pay the exact same wage. Many talented, experienced writers are hustling harder than ever for less money than we made a decade ago.

But many of us, watching some of our peers hit the Today show or best-seller lists, also feel driven to make big bucks, with or without kids, because we can. Our incomes prove our bona fides as smart, ambitious, driven, feminist.

What if we don’t want to?

That’s a pretty radical statement for women daily exhorted on all sides to Do It All. As many women doing it all know, (those without 24/7 nanny care or family support), it can be a recipe for exhaustion.

We don’t have kids, (by choice), nor must we support broke parents; my father and mother are well-financed and Jose’s parents long dead.

So whatever income we scrape together is up to us to negotiate. In our early years, we had some very bitter fights over my inability to earn a lot more than I do. Now Jose gratefully accepts what I earn, even if it’s less than my income from 2000, when we met, and I had a $1,200/month client for about a year. I recently — after many tough years without one — snagged another.

It’s difficult not to feel really frustrated sometimes. We’re in our 50s, not 20s or 30s with decades ahead of us in which we want to workworkworkworkwork.

Like many people our age, and in our industry, we’re both doing our best to adapt, but we’re weary of trimming our sails or savaging one another for our stagnant/falling incomes. It’s been too easy to turn that frustration on one another.

From The New York Times:

In the first quarter of this year, per capita disposable personal income was up just 4.7 percent from four years ago. That is the smallest such gain since the late 1940s, when the number was influenced by the fall in government spending after World War II. Adjusted for inflation, the average American now has income that is 2.1 percent lower than four years ago.

Do you significantly out-earn your husband or vice versa?

How’s that affecting your marriage?

What’s your personal brand?

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I’m also a fearless explorer, minus the helmet.

I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a panel teaching us “Brand You.”

Not the hot metal mark seared into your butt kind.

The “I’m unique because” kind.

I’m lousy at sound-bite self-definition, which is driving American business as never before, thanks to Twitter, (which I don’t use), Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media.

And tomorrow in Manhattan I’m attending a huge blogging conference, BlogHer, where I’ll have to tout yourself in a few pithy syllables.

I was raised, culturally (Canada) and by my (accomplished but quiet about it) family and by my profession (journalism) not to toot my horn all the damn time.

Have you ever heard of “tall poppy” syndrome? In Australia, the tallest poppy — i.e. the boastful braggart — gets its pretty little head lopped off for its temerity. The Japanese and Swedes have their own expressions for this as well.

Canadians just find chest-beating socially gauche, and assume you’re a pushy American. So that whole brand-building thing, there, is often considered about as attractive as passing wind. Modesty is highly prized, so how to “be a brand” and do so in a low-key way, somehow escapes me.

(Being modest is easier in a smaller nation with tighter social and professional networks. There are more than 300 million Americans, some of them breathtakingly aggressive. Remaining invisible often means professional suicide.)

I still think (yes, I know I’m wrong!), that the quality of my body of work should speak for itself. This constant, tedious “watchmewatchmewatchmeeeeeeee!” of a three-year-old at the pool — now considered part of “building your personal brand” — remains a behavior I find a little infantile. Even after 20+ years in the U.S. and near New York City, where sharp elbows are a pre-requisite for survival.

Here are a few phrases I think define me and my work:

passionate authenticity

insatiable curiosity

nuanced investigation

I love this song, Helplessness Blues, by Fleet Foxes:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do

Do you have a brand?

What is it?

How did you arrive at it?

Would you please have sex with that chair?

The most commonly known foreign languages (inc...
The most commonly known foreign languages (including Irish as a second language) in the Republic of Ireland in 2005.

Je parle francais.

Hablo espanol.

I speak two languages in addition to my native English — “speak” means conducting a general social conversation. It does not mean discussing nuclear physics or how to perform some surgical intervention.

Nor do I have a handle on the boatloads of idioms that make one a truly elegant speaker; one of my favorite blogs is this one, which sends out a fresh French idiom — almost as good as a baguette! — every day. (Elle a du chien, je crois.)

I wanted to speak both languages to work as a foreign correspondent; by the time I’d acquired the necessary skill and experience, journalism had begun its lurching descent into cost-cutting and foreign bureaus worldwide were being shut down. Tant pis!

But being someone in New York who speaks two foreign languages has helped me win jobs, both staff and freelance. It seems to awe the uni-lingual. (Educated Europeans speak 4, 5 or 6 languages and think little of it.)

I’ve lived in France and Mexico, and have visited both places many times. I hope to retire to France, so speaking the language well (better!) is important to me. My American husband, Jose, who is of Mexican descent, had a fun time with me when we visited Mexico…as everyone turned to him and began chatting in Spanish, which he understands but does not speak. He’d point to me, the white Canadian girl, as the one who actually does speak it.

Speaking French gave me the best year of my entire life, on an eight-month fellowship based in Paris that sent me all over Europe to do reporting on someone else’s dime. It allowed me to work in Montreal, where I met my first American husband, at the Gazette. It allows me to think seriously about retiring to France, as no language barrier daunts me.

Maybe this is simply having grown up in Canada, which has two official languages, French and English. Growing up there means seeing many items labeled in both languages. It’s completely normal to meet fellow Anglophones who speak fluent French — without which any government job is difficult-to-impossible to obtain.

I never understand people who disdain the notion of learning another language, a second or third tongue. It has opened doors to me professionally and personally, allowing me to make friendships that would have been otherwise impossible, like those with Mila (Brazilian) and Yasuro (Japanese), who shared that glorious fellowship in Paris. I don’t speak Portuguese or Japanese, but we all got along famously in our second shared language.

I lived in Mexico for four months when I was 14, and quickly learned two new adjectives, often hissed suggestively at me by men on the street or the bus: fuerita and juerita. (Little foreigner and little blondie.) I had an older, fatter friend  — she was fuerota/juerota.

Of course, trying to communicate in another tongue means making some delicious mistakes.

In French, the verb baiser can to kiss or to have sex with. The meanings of words, in Spanish, can change significantly from one country to another — so coger (to physically pick up, one meaning) can also mean to have sex with. Yes, I’d like you to have sex with that chair, please!

You can imagine…

My mother, traveling for years alone through Latin America, once declared passionately that she had many toilets! (Tengo muchos excusados...meaning, she thought, “reasons.”)

Do you speak several languages?

Which ones?

When and where do you use them? Why did you learn them?

Dites-nous!

Negotiating — every freelancer’s challenge!

Freelancer (video game)
Freelancer (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)very single new client means a new set of negotiations. Your ability to negotiate will make the difference between surviving and thriving, intellectually, physically, emotionally — and financially.

I began selling my photos when I was 17, and my writing when I was 19, so I’ve been at this for a while. I also grew up, as I’ve written here before, in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck or pension, just their talent,  hard work and ability to negotiate — or have an agent or lawyer do it for them.

So I grew up lucky in this respect, knowing firsthand that many things in life are negotiable.

Tips:

— Know what you want to achieve before you take/make the call, send the email, Fed-Ex a work sample or schedule a meeting. People are busy, juggling family and work, study and travel. The kind of people you probably most want to negotiate with, i.e. with a budget or network that might use your skills, are probably really busy. Decide exactly what you want to have happen as a result of your interaction with this person: a gig, a contract, a column, an ongoing relationship, a referral. That clarity will focus your thoughts and actions.

— What’s your fallback position? We all know we might not get exactly what we want or even 20 percent of what we want. So what are your Plans B-F? Have a few alternative outcomes in mind, and ones less demanding or risky to your contact, so you don’t have to end the conversation with a shrug or silence. I’ve asked for all kinds of things I never got. It’s all experience, information and practice.

— Know, and stick to, your absolute deal-breakers. We all have them. They’re called principles. Know when and why you will simply walk away from a deal. Unless you’re about to become homeless if you don’t take on this gig, you have choices. Never assume you have to take on anything because you are young or inexperienced or new to the city, whatever. If a contact really skeeves you out, drop it. There are other clients out there! Yes, really.

— Do your due diligence. Before you initiate contact with anyone with whom you hope to do business, you must try to find out who they are, how they think, where they were educated, (back to grade school, if possible), their cultural or religious background, their global perspective (or lack of same) and some of their private passions, whether soccer, Chopin or ska. Your goal is not only not to offend, but to connect, authentically and enthusiastically, with their interests, experiences and values. Most people want to work with smart and enjoyable people, not just perky opaque robots trying to suck up to them and sellsellsell. Between every form of social media, and some thoughtful sleuthing, you can easily come to the table with a deep(er) appreciation of your contact’s perspective.

— What do they want? Basic, but easily forgotten in our rush to get the gig, get paid, get paid more, become famous, get the referral, whatever. You must have some clear notion how they’re thinking about this meeting, (even only by phone or email), in order to think through your arguments and talking points. What’s their motivation for taking your call, reading your email or coming to a meeting with you now?

— Have you investigated the potential obstacles to getting what you want from them? Maybe your contact’s life is in turmoil professionally or personally, (i.e. be patient), or their business/industry is tanking (see: due diligence), or they don’t know enough about you to feel you’re worth their time or money or (worst case) they might have heard or seen something negative about you. Until and unless you anticipate (and overcome) these possible roadblocks, your negotiation is imperiled by poor preparation.

— Never arrive empty-handed. I don’t mean arrive at a business meeting carrying flowers, but bring some intellectual brio to the game. I had two meetings in the past two days, one by phone with someone who is an absolute leader in his field and one this morning with another like him. I was honored, and nervous! In both instances, to my surprise, I shared some information with them that was news to each. The point? Offer something of value to them — a book, a link, a blog they might not have heard of, re-con on a client or conference in your shared field of interest. Don’t just suck up their time and energy.

— Assistants and secretaries are your best friends. I’ve often been on a first-name basis with someone’s right hand long — i.e. months of calls and emails to them alone — before I ever got to deal with my target client/source directly. Be kind, patient and genuinely friendly with them. They’re making decisions about you with every contact, and can grease the wheels to a meeting, (and that negotiation you’re itching for) or kill it.

— Know what your competitors are doing. Every freelancer in the world is competing with dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of others with excellent skills/education/contacts/experience. Don’t freak out about it. But be aware what others are getting (in payment, terms, conditions) by staying on top of your industry. So if you come in quoting rates much higher than your competitors’, be ready for push-back and know how to clearly explain the value you offer. (If you’re always desperately low-balling, that’s a failed negotiation in my book.)

— Why do they want you? This is key to a successful outcome. Unless or until you’ve established a clear, consistent and impressive track record that shows your value, you don’t have much. This puts you in a weak(er) negotiating position. So what’s your strategy? Will you work for less? (Maybe there are other significant benefits here beyond cash.) Can you get a referral or reference from this client? If you have a strong hand, use it! I’ve asked for more, and gotten it. You can’t get (any of) what you don’t ask for.

— What’s their budget? A standard question I get is: “How much will it cost me to have you….” Edit a manuscript or write website copy or help tailor a query letter. My standard answer is: “What’s your budget?” That often kills it right there, as they have no idea, or they hope it’s really cheap, and I’m not. You also to determine their goals, timeline, internal and external obstacles and resources. If they can’t pony up the money you want(ed), is there another benefit this gig or client can offer?

Here’s a great book, “Getting to Yes.”

Any tips you can share?