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Low Self-Esteem and Defending Your Value as a Creative by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin.

I have made no secret of my struggles with depression and low self-esteem. While I take medication to mitigate the effects, they are insidious forces that have a tendency to creep up when least expected. As a creative, there is an extremely fine line that we consistently walk the edge of. This is the line between realistic self-evaluation and destructive pessimism. In order to grow, one needs to examine his work and identify the weaknesses that require improvement. Doing so, however, can cause one to focus on the constant inadequacy that comes with not being perfect. This is a basic inner struggle that many creatives contend with and one that I have spoken about previously.

The struggle is enhanced, however, when it is removed from the realm of personal thoughts to the realm of business. As a creative working within a creative field, we are tasked with not only creating work, but attributing value to it in the form of our pricing. This is a tricky process and one which many books have been written about. Certainly, you can look at pricing across the market and place yourself somewhere that you deem reasonable based upon factors such as experience, brand recognition, quality of work, etc. and it would be a decent solution to the problem, but what happens when you run into a situation where the market is saturated with hobbyists who are willing to work for a credit or some paltry sum that is not viable to build an income from? Do you value your time and work the same way they do? Do you stick to your guns and charge based on what you need in order for all of this to be worth it to you? Do you pack up and find another line of work?

This is not a polemic against people willing to work for free or people who are taking side gigs just to pay for their own hobby. While many of them are genuinely talented and are underselling themselves, they are not responsible for thinking about others. As long as they are meeting their own goals, they are justified in pricing themselves however they choose. For anyone who tries to make a primary income from photography, however, it is a reality that needs to be accounted for. How do you defend your value to the potential clients to whom you are quoting a price for work?

The simple answer is to be better. You need to provide better consultation. You need to provide a better product. You need to provide better service. You need to provide a better customer experience. Above all, you need to be better at simply turning people down. It’s that last part that is probably the most difficult. The notion of the “starving artist” is a real thing and particularly when we are beginning, it is so easy to try to grab any little payday that we can. If someone is willing to pay you $50 and it’s $50 that you didn’t have before, how do you send them away? You can even rationalize it away to some extent. After all, it might just be an hour of work so theoretically you’re making $50/hour, right?

The adversarial nature of negotiations only makes it more difficult. As the service provider, you clearly want to make the most money that you possibly can. The client who has to pay wants to pay the least that they possibly can. So while you are defending your value, it is likely that the client is going to do their best to devalue you and your work. Whether it is attacking your experience (or lack thereof), pointing out problems with your product, dismissing the nature of your job as simply pressing a button, etc. If you get into this business, expect people to diminish your profession to try to work your price down.

On the one hand, every barb that a client levels at me hurts me at my core due to my natural low self-esteem. When these conversations occur, it is no longer an inner monologue beating me up—it is a real person on the other side of the conversation pointing out my weaknesses. It often becomes a spiral where, by extension of the worthlessness of my work, I feel worthless as a human being. This leads me down a very dark emotional path. On the other hand, it angers me to no end when these discussions inevitably occur because I tend to take it all very personally for the reasons I just described. For those that may not suffer from mental health issues in the way that I do, this might all seem the height of irrationality, but depression is not a rational thing. Like I said, it’s an insidious thing that can creep up on you and grip you before you realize what’s happening.

Why am I bringing all of this up and what’s the point? Even though it’s something that I continue to struggle with and something for which I’ve found no infallible solution, I want to let others like me know that they are not alone. Creative industries can be difficult for people who do not suffer from depression or low self-esteem, but for those who do, the nature of the business can lead one down some ugly emotional paths. One thing that I started doing in the morning is looking in the mirror and reminding myself that I have value and that my work has value. When I engage in negotiations, I keep my temper and remind myself that the client is not personally attacking me (usually), but that they have a legitimate concern about how their money is spent and expect me to provide assurances for them in the form of my own defense of my product. Above all, deal with people courteously even when it comes to turning work down. Simply saying that, “Unfortunately, I simply can’t do this at that price.” or “I don’t think that this arrangement is going to make sense for me.” and providing some alternatives in the form of references to cheaper photographers or potential solutions to make their project more reasonably priced is always better than “Go fuck off.”.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most professional person in the world by a long stretch. I’m crass, I’m prone to severe mood swings, and I prefer to be very informal. I am not the right photographer for every client, but I’m honest about that. I didn’t get into this to be rich (although it would be nice if it ended that way). I got into this because I love photography and I want to help people with my skill set. Regardless of how I may think of myself, I can help people solve their creative problems (within the limits of my own ability) and that extends beyond simply taking on jobs. My value as a creative is to be able to create for you when I can and to lead you to others who can do for you what I cannot. Essentially, my value as a creative is that I actually give a fuck about you (whether you deserve it or not) and that’s more than can be said about a lot of people.