The Value Proposition

This might be a lot or a little. It depends on what you've done and how much people value the work.

This might be a lot or a little. It depends on what you've done and how much people value the work.

How much are you worth? Clever economists will say, “Whatever the market will bear,” and to some extent they’re right. But coming up with the right number to put on your invoice is hardly the point of this exercise. It’s essential to understand your own value without falling into a contemporary cliche that pretends we’re all equally valuable at some base, fundamental level. Sorry, but that’s simply not true. For example, the infinite movie budgets that seem to accrue to Michael Bay have nothing to do with the infantile quality of his work, just as the relatively unimpressive budgets spent by the Coen Brothers—or the tiny budgets spent by Woody Allen— do not begin to measure their masterly capabilities.

There are tools you can apply to figure out your value. The ones that matter in this context don’t come with actual numbers, I’m sorry to say, but bear with me and I think you’ll get the idea. 

When you’re hired for a job, do you routinely spend a portion of your time trying to figure out how to minimize effort without making your client feel short changed? Or, conversely, do you routinely have to reign yourself in so that you won’t spend foolish amounts of resources and time perfecting something that doesn’t require microscopic levels of detail? There’s value on both sides of this teeter-totter, just as there are obvious perils, too. While one’s worth has to do with finding a appropriate balance, it also has to do with what the long term implications are for your ability to persist doing similar jobs in the future. An answer to a challenge today may solve a problem, but an answer that facilitates repeated opportunities to solve new problems in the future suggests deeper value. More subtly, if a big chunk of your efforts are all about how the work can appear more valuable than it is, you may win today’s sale, but lose big-time going into the future. 

Allow me a brief digression here while I grab you by the shoulders. The preceding paragraph argues for smart allocation of your time and effort in order to maximize profits, no matter how you count your time. May I simply say that the real siren call for a paying audience is for you to figure out how to be great in the first place, and then let your market find you because they have to have what you’re having

But, like I said, I digress…

Do you deliver something that’s easy to find elsewhere? Before you answer, think a little beyond superficial supply and demand. Everyone has a surprisingly good camera these days on their smart phones, but photographic ubiquity doesn’t equal photographic quality. Supply will not be too helpful in determining absolute value. In fact, you can more easily find multiplex screens showing city-chomping CGI robots than you can find screens showing smart art, or even just well made entertainments.

That leads me to perception. How we present ourselves will shape how the world sees us, and ultimately how we’re valued. For photography, again, I think about the realities of helping clients understand why what a skilled photographer is doing should be valued more than ordinary snapshots. If you think that’s a simplistic concept, replace “photographs” with some other specialized discipline that you cannot do by yourself: “driveway paving”, “tax preparation”, “brain surgery”. There are objective measurements of quality that speak for some disciplines more than others. Brain surgery has objective criteria with more profound implications than photographs of pretty flowers, for example. But there are matters of perception that may nonetheless require you to explain to a client why you know what to do when presented with a grown-up job.

I wouldn’t know if a driveway were paved properly until it started to crack. I simply don’t have knowledge base to tell the difference until it passes a point of obvious failure. But I can appreciate when a job is done properly, and I can also appreciate when someone knowledgable can explain it to me.

How much are you worth? The answer, invariably, is “It depends.” Not many things in a finite life have real, lasting value, and the things that matter today might not have much meaning tomorrow. Therefore, if you’re trying to project a sentiment designed to entice someone to open his or her wallet for your services, it’s essential that you’re honest with yourself first. 


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