Is Work Your Worth?

My first salary negotiation was a total success. It was also a a total fluke. When I was seventeen, my parents had offered me the option of staying home alone for the summer rather than schlep out to the country house, so long as I could find a full-time job to keep me occupied. Given the option of independence, I scoured the papers and discovered the one stop shop of employment agencies.

That’s how I found myself sitting across from a recruiter at the age of nineteen. She was offering me a position at a call center -- a central location you could call to place an order from a restaurant near you. (I will date myself further by telling you that it was the first automated center of its kind, with computer screens connected to a mainframe that sat in its own air-conditioned room.)  I had worked at one of these restaurants the summer before, and the recruiter seemed excited by that. It was a supervisory role, she explained. They needed someone who had customer service experience (check), was familiar with the product (check), and was driven and eager to climb the corporate ladder (check, check check!).

Sounds good, I said. How much?

Nineteen thousand.

Nineteen thousand?

Yes. She waited. I think that’s very generous.

I needed a second to do the math. I had never been offered an annual salary before and was trying to figure out how much I would be paid per hour.

The recruiter mistook my hesitation for a bargaining ploy.

OK, ok, twenty-one thousand. But that’s as high as they’ll go! Take it or leave it.

I took it. And learned about the power of silence in negotiation.

In the years that followed my compensation was never a source of angst for me. And when I began working as a consultant, my rates followed accordingly. I had more than one client sit before me and complain about my fees. I easily defended my value, comfortable in my worth.

Then I became a stay-at-home mom. Being at home with my kids changed the measure with which I evaluated  my worth. Whereas before I had held up my ability to deliver quality projects on time and under budget, now I was watching my kids for signs of my effectiveness: improved grades, less tantrums, more friends. My identity as a parent was tied to their behavior, my worth was measured by their outcome, my value derived by their accomplishments.

This was not going to work. (Though it did drive home the fact that I could not stay home for my kids).

I needed to find my worth in other ways. I looked at my relationship with my husband, my journey of self-acceptance, my gratitude for a full and rich life. But none of it helped.

Because worthiness is, by its very definition, a measure of value. And measures are, by their very definitions, tools of comparison. Such that, regardless of the value I was considering for my worth - external (career, appearance, success) or internal (joy, relationships, self-acceptance) - I was measuring, comparing and holding myself up against others (or, worse yet, against the potential of myself). Which made me question the value of worthiness.

Is the measure of our worth worthless?

Particularly at work, where worth is intrinsically tied to money, it is really our worth we are measuring? Or is it the compensation we negotiated that no longer works for us? In which case, perhaps it’s better to focus less on our worth and more on our negotiation skills. I had stumbled into my first negotiation, but over the years I learned about preparing for negotiations by coming in well-informed, clear on what I want, and most importantly, ready to walk away from the deal.

The same is true for any other relationship I am in. I am less interested in whether or not the person before me finds me worthy, but rather if the exchange works for me. Did I negotiate an arrangement where I am giving more than I am receiving? Is there room to re-negotiate these terms? And, most importantly, am I willing to walk away?

To this, the answer is usually yes. [Cue Beyonce] Because I am worth it.