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On Causality (and covariance)

Work experience, freelance rates and The Law of Negotiated Misery

There is one law all journalism students, freelancers, well, all people who've turned their passion or hobby into an occupation, should know about.

It's The Law of Negotiated Misery.

Its inventor humbly told me, that if it's one thing he thought people would remember him for, it's for formulating this law, which in essence states that the "self-managed" classes have a tendency to negotiate themselves into lives of permanent misery (I have a hunch this law arouse from all the observations Brian made during his career consulting work, do correct me if I'm wrong). It works like this (full text here):

There are four kinds of work you think about maybe doing.
1. There's work you love and are good at.
2. There's work you hate and are good at.
3. There's work you love and are bad at.
4. There's work you hate and are bad at.

The world pretty soon decides that you must stop doing (3) and (4) and of course, you are delighted to stop doing (4). If you insist on doing (3) you are going to have to do it as a hobby. Which leaves (1) and (2), the stuff you are good at, and either (1) love or (2) hate.

How much do you get paid to do (1), work you love and are good at? If you are a good negotiator, then plenty, because you are good at it, and demand lots of money. But what if you are a bad negotiator? You jump at the job and accept bad money.

How much do you get paid to do (2)? Chances are you get paid good money. Why? Because you will only consent to do work you hate if you are paid good money. So, with no great effort, you hold out for good money (even if all you thought you were doing was Just Saying No), and, because you are good at the work, you get paid good money. Eventually, someone makes you an offer you can't refuse, and you take it.

So, if you are a bad negotiator, unable to repress your natural desire to do what you love and to avoid what you hate, you get paid bad money to do work you love, and good money to do work you hate.

Bad negotiators can have semi-good lives if they can afford to oscillate between work they love and work they hate. For a while, they do that. But, by the end of that period the only way they know to make good money is to do work they hate.

Then factor in the following circumstance. They switch to a life in which they then have to make continuously good money. Wife, kids, mortgage. Maybe an addiction to an expensive type-(3) hobby. Or maybe the life they lead just happens to get much more expensive. Clang. The gates of the prison slam shut. From then on they must do work they hate, continuously...

I was reminded of this law when I read Roy Greenslade's piece on young journalists working for nothing. As many things in life, the issue of work-experience is not black and white (at its best I think it can be more valuable than journalism school, but I know there's also lots of exploitation going on) which is perhaps why I put it aside and forgot to blog about it, but I was reminded again when I read this piece on freelance rates in Press Gazette.

Work-experience: well, I'll return to that in a separate posts.

As for freelance rates: I've never had a problem getting standard freelance rates or more (varies from country to country and beat to beat: for instance, the rates tend to be higher in Norway than the UK, but so does the taxes; travel writing tend to be badly paid, business journalism pays a lot better, and niche expertise can attract premium rates if you're in the right niche (if you're competing with thousands of other 'niche experts', as is often the case with travel writing, you're not).

A much bigger problem is that the workflow of a freelancer can be erratic, and media organisations are often late and unpredictable payers. Hence supplementing your income with other streams of revenue, e.g. from translation or copy-writing is useful. But should you find yourself spending most of your time pursuing 'short-term' income to be able to afford a few hours of doing what you love, it's perhaps time to remind yourself of Micklethwait's Law of Negotiated Misery...


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