Last week my therapist had some great ideas for my career path going forward, but I didn’t write them down and now I can’t remember what they were.
I think my brain is blocking them out, truth be told, because the thought of charging money for the things I am actually good at? Scary. Because I’m good at things like listening deeply, making people feel seen and heard, asking insightful questions, understanding and sharing stories, offering guidance and encouragement, and putting things that are difficult to express into words. While I am competent at other things, those are the things that come from my soul, from my best self. My strongest skills are my soft skills.
In terms of career goals, in the words of Lloyd Dobler (imaginary boyfriend of all sensitive children born between 1976 and 1984), “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”
As a person living in the United States in the post-industrial age, however, I do require things that are sold and processed—coffee, leggings, very fast internet—which means at some point I must convince myself and other parties that what I have to offer is worth some of that sweet, sweet currency.
For years, I received currency in exchange for offering guidance and instruction to the children of the moderately-to-extremely-rich. My work was to create a safe and encouraging environment in which they could practice, a) speaking clearly about things that matter to them, and b) playing pretend for the entertainment of themselves and others. My title was “Speech and Theater Teacher,” but that’s what I did.
I did this under the auspices of a school, which was also a brand (private schools always are), which was also an Institution with a reputation that was (like all reputations) in some ways merited and in other ways not so much. In my years at that school, I made serving the students my priority, while at the same time trying to represent the brand, and in the end I hope I contributed positively to the reputation and history of the institution.
I was good at the guidance and instruction. Sometimes, I was excellent. Representing a brand was a skill at which I soon became competent, the same way I became competent at wearing heels and a blazer on the daily, but after years I felt equally ill-at-ease in both costumes. The Institution? That was something I required, intellectually and emotionally, to settle my imposter syndrome.
As I saw it, if The Institution continued renewing my contract, it meant they were satisfied with my contribution to the product they were selling, a name-brand prep-school education. I needed The Institution to legitimize the fact that my work, when you strip back the trappings of “product” (the lesson plans, assessment tools, public-facing performances and competitions, etc.) was to listen deeply, make people feel seen and heard, ask insightful questions, understand and share stories, offer guidance and encouragement, and put things that are difficult to express into words.
That work is spiritual more than practical. It’s the work of being human. How can that be sold? How do you sell connection, love, shared humanity? Through an Institution! So for years, I would put on my pantsuit, do spiritual work, dress it up in some practical do-dads, and the Institution sold it. Or, at the very least, offered it as a free gift with purchase.
If it is okay for an Institution to sell my work, why don’t I feel like it’s okay for me to sell it myself?
Ugh, money is weird, right? Because it’s a thing, but also it’s an idea, and it doesn’t mean anything, but it also means EVERYTHING?
At some point, I need to offer something of myself into the raging current of the economy—current and currency have the same root, currere, meaning “to flow”—something that’s needed elsewhere in the societal body. We all have assets within ourselves we are willing to exchange for the things we need and want. Every society has rules and taboos about what exchanges are just, unjust, encouraged, or forbidden.
In our society, for example, we can sell our body in the form of labor but not sex. We can sell our time, punching a clock in the service of an institution, but we cannot sell our companionship, our prayers, or our kindness. The government can collect taxes to pay teachers to provide care and instruction within an institution, but they can’t provide a basic income to parents who do the same at home. Some of these rules make sense to me, some of them seem arbitrary.
So, somehow, I am assuming there is a “rule” preventing me from asking for compensation for the work I do, not without some Higher Power authorizing it. But like, why not? Why can’t I let myself be a teacher without an institution to validate me? Why can’t I guide and encourage and enlighten and then send a bill? Why can’t I offer my best gifts in exchange for the means to provide for myself and my family?
I’ll tell you why not. Because I am too clouded by insecurity to believe that I have value. Because I have too much shame to believe I am worthy of Nice Things.
See, that’s the real problem. Until I can value myself, I won’t be comfortable asserting that value to others. If I can’t show people that I have something to offer, something worthy of exchange, I won’t be able to put my work into the world. My gifts would die on the vine. Which would be a damn shame.
Hence the therapy. I am working on my hang-ups about work, money, and the ethics of charging hard cash for soft skills. I am also working on seeing myself as a person of value. A person who can receive as well as give. A person who is worthy of good things.
That’s tough, for a Catholic girl. I was taught that Christ and his mother were the only truly worthy humans, despite which they got the rawest of raw deals, ergo who the hell am I to spend seventy bucks on a nice sweater? Then I remember that Jesus allowed himself to be bathed in expensive oils and perfumes, first as a baby, again by the woman who washed his feet, and finally in the tomb. When chastised by Judas, he responded, saying basically, “My time is running out.” He knew that his earthly life was short. So is mine.
I only get so much time. That, in itself, gives all of us value. We are here, on this earth, for a short time and then we won’t be, and while we are here we should be sharing our gifts and enjoying what the world has to offer. The gifts of creation, the gifts of our fellow humans, and the mixed blessings of industry and capitalism and creativity and technology. It’s all what is on offer, here and now. So yeah. I’ll drop the Venmo tip jar at the bottom of the column and soon, I’ll start working on a website where I can sell myself as a writer-teacher-speaker-seeker, coach-consultant-colleague.
And next time my therapist comes at me with some brilliant ideas for how to market that massive multi-hyphenate? I’ll write them down.
Theresa Weiler is a writer, teacher, speaker, seeker. She lives in Detroit with her husband and four children, who she will go broke trying to feed. Seriously, have you seen the price of milk lately? You can buy her kids some milk via Venmo @realtheresaweiler. Follow her on social media, @realtheresaweiler on Instagram and @Real_Theresa on Twitter.