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?
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.