August 12, 2021

Stop Being So Grateful

The iconic: “Please Sir, I want some more.” (Oliver Twist, 1968)

To be a freelancer, especially a freelance writer, often means to take what is offered and be grateful for it. Writing jobs are now content jobs, and even those are fewer and farther between. Writers are now expected to be their own editors, and often their own ad department. Pay rates are the same, or lower, than they were when I started out more than fifteen years ago, though naturally the same cannot be said for rent or bills. Or, importantly, the cost of living as an adult woman over forty who no longer can play fast and loose with the necessity of health care. The upshot of the current media world is that there are more voices, the downshot is that few are being paid a living wage.

Meanwhile, the quality of assignments is diminished (I have more than a few friends, highly accomplished journalists, who are currently writing captions for TikTok). If you are a woman without a partner, say, who can contribute to the rent, or provide health insurance through their job, things are even more bleak. In short, you tend to take what you can get and be grateful that you got it rather than think too long and hard about whether you actually want to be doing it. 

I imagine this scenario rings true not just for many freelancers, but also people in jobs with regular direct deposit paychecks. America does not treat its workers well, is a lesson we’ve all come to learn yet again during the last seventeen months. 

But this is not a sad tale. Our hot vacc summer may be coming to an abrupt and disheartening end, but it’s still a summer Friday! Instead, this is a tale of being reminded that one of the results of relentlessly being undervalued is an overabundance of gratitude when things are not totally terrible. 

Recently I picked up a short-term gig that doesn’t just pay the bills but, gasp, pays more than the bills (barely more, but still). That’s not all, the workload is light — I’m essentially being paid well to do less — and the work is satisfying. This is unheard of in my professional sphere. Unheard of. Needless to say, I said yes immediately, and just like that, I was (temporarily) transported back to some 1990s media world that only exists on television and in the memories of the white people who benefited from it. 

“Can you believe this?” I said to a friend recently, describing the job. “It’s too good to be real.”

To my shock, she was less impressed. “Are you able to buy a house? Is this paying off your bills? Are your savings growing? Is it actually changing your life?”

I conceded it was not, though one or two extremely unnecessary, but deeply coveted caftans had made their way into my closet this summer.

“But,” I protested, “these sorts of jobs just don’t exist anymore.”

That may be true, my friend acknowledged, but it didn’t mean I needed to be overly grateful for not having to scrounge. Instead, she gently advised, I needed to understand this is how I should be getting paid. I should be making a living wage, (I should be making more than a living wage!) and treat the job as such: a respectable gig, not a gift from the heavens that randomly landed on me like a winning lottery ticket. 

In short, I needed to understand not just my worth, but, essentially, the worthlessness of American capitalism as we know it.

If there is one thing that American capitalism is especially good at, it’s making sure women never understand their true value. Lean in. Do more. Girl Boss. Be everything, for everyone, but don’t expect to get paid for it. 

Even if the world will tell you again and again, in easily consumed listicles, that you should be getting paid for it, and also here’s a handy guide on how to ask to get paid for it, no one seems to be overly interested in evaluating the systems (or people) that ensure this never actually happens. (Also, it’s never lost on me that the people tasked with writing these pieces are very likely being paid pennies to do so, with the understanding that if they ask for more they won’t be asked again to do anything at all.) 

I am a believer in practicality: recognizing how the world works and making the most of it. Seeing opportunities and understanding they may be short-lived, and treating them as such, is often an act of survival as much as anything else. But to quote recently-turned-40 Meghan Markle, do you want to survive or thrive? This was why it was such a revelation to hear my friend say, you’re too grateful

In the space between recognizing a good thing and considering that good thing to be a miracle is where we need to work to shed the gaslighting of capitalism, which tells us to be thankful. It teaches many of us that the scarcity mindset is an acceptable way to live long-term, as opposed to a skill one can lean on temporarily during intermittent tough times. 

Thinking is a muscle like anything else and it requires practice. Consider the things in your life you are most grateful for and then practice thinking whether it would actually be more useful to consider them the norm. Make that your starting point as opposed to where you end up settling.