When I was in college I dreamed about working for a large, well known advertising agency.  The kind that I saw in the movies, had an office on Madison Avenue, made television ads, and had the mystique of combining the creative arts with business.

When I graduated from college, I got my wish.

I remember my first week at work walking through the halls of the giant art-filled offices thinking that I had finally arrived – I had made it.

Or so I thought.

To start out, life was far from lavish.  The starting salary, which initially seemed ample, was actually extremely low.  After my first month’s rent bill came due, I realized that rent alone (excluding utilities, food, etc.) cost me roughly 3/4 of my after-tax income.

To save money, I used to mix 1/2 fake Cheerios with 1/2 real Cheerios for breakfast because I couldn’t afford to have the real Cheerios every day.  For those of you who doubt the math, I remember it vividly.  At the C-Town grocery store on 1st Ave and 89th St, the regular Cheerio’s box was $8.50, while the knock off box was only $2.99.  This small concession allowed me to save about $5 every two weeks: a huge difference when you only have $20 of disposable income per month.

As I was living near the poverty line (by Manhattan standards), little did I realize that I had just started to “pay my dues”.

I suspect that everyone has heard the advice at some point in their life.  It usually comes from an older colleague or a parent:

“It’s important to pay your dues.”

Well, I can speak first hand about paying dues because I did it for a very long time.  The agency world was my home for about 4.5 years.  I worked very hard and long hours.  During the entirety of my tenure I was underpaid and overworked.  But I did it happily – all for the chance to one day become the boss.  I knew that eventually someone else would have to do the hard work and I would be the person at the top of the corporate ladder: the beneficiary of other’s labor.

I often think what advice I would give to someone who was in my position two to three years out of college working in a job where they are still paying their dues.  Would I advise them to keep at it, working long stressful hours, building few transferable skills and being told that they have to wait in line for a promotion?

Probably not.

The problem is that systems designed to take advantage of junior level workers to benefit senior level workers only function so long as there is no paradigm shift.  As we’ve seen over the past 10 years, the world is definitely not stagnant.  My heart goes out to those who paid their dues in the newspaper or magazine newsroom only to find print media going extinct by the time they’re ready to take their position at the top of the totem pole.

Same goes for many other industries that are currently in the process of being reinvented.

The lesson is: pay your dues only so long as the lessons you learn are useful to you.  Never wait in line for a promotion just out of respect for a system designed to take advantage of those who are new.

In fact – if you find yourself in a job where it is necessary to spend a long time paying your dues, it’s a good sign that you’re in an industry that’s ripe for disruption.  Quit, start your own company, and let the disruption begin.

Why I Don’t Believe in “Paying Your Dues”
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  • Have you read Peopleware? Good book, I think you’d find it very relevant.


    More broadly, I think you’re right – the idea that someone needs to put years into time-consuming, boring, low-value work for the opportunity to be “the boss” (and get a lot of money) is absurd. You can’t motivate people through a sinister mix of fear (of being fired) and greed (more money/power).
    Even worse, the best people are going to recognize that there’s an opportunity cost to taking a job. If I work at your company, will I be more or less valuable than my friend at X other promising company in two years?
    If you have someone capable doing low-value work…. well, they won’t stay.
    It also says poor things about your business model, particularly these days. Prepare to be automated?
    Still, in vocations that demand a lot of skill and a high level of technical ability, “paying your dues” has more to do with learning – and in many cases, people want to run before they can walk. Sometimes it’s necessary to spend time doing things over and over so you see all the variations
    I run across that these days – I do the occasional model (usually a regression of some kind), and I just haven’t done enough of them to really be able to (I) interpret the results, and (ii) try stuff if my first few efforts fail. I’d need to do thousands of analyses, all slightly different, before I’d be confident taking on a new analysis and producing a good result. Much less before I’d expect someone else to be confident in my doing that.
    That can be reduced through the selection of good problems (diverse, cover the problem space, and always just stretching your skill level) – thus the real value of maths textbooks, and practice – and/or someone to teach you directly (since they can tailor problems to you, and support you where necessary).
    But, really, for skill-intensive efforts with high stakes (i.e. life or death), I expect that paying your dues is essential, and a very good way of cutting down on mistakes.
    If the cost of mistakes is near zero (as it is in many web companies), then it’s a different matter – make mistakes, and learn. Not doing so imposes an opportunity cost which your competitors aren’t suffering under.