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The Trouble With Paying Dues

By Tiffany Monhollon

“It’s going to be at least a year, isn’t it?” His eyes are full of impatience, frustration, and maybe even a dose of fear. After all, it was just a year ago that he was spending every waking moment of our first few months as a married couple penciling, inking, lettering, printing, making the perfect pitch.

“Yeah. So what?” I say, realizing, in the back of my mind how harsh that probably sounds, since we’re only talking about his childhood dream here.

But I have my game face on with him, now. Reality is, we are on the same page with this struggle. He is an incredibly talented artist. Opportunities are aligning already for him. I’m impressed with not just his efforts but the skill and insight and success he’s already achieved just a few years out of college.

Being married to a creative person when you work, live, and dream in that world yourself is not without its challenges. Honestly, it’s hard enough dealing with my own crazy dreams and expectations sometimes. Knowing he deals with the same types of hopes and aspirations for himself can be overwhelming. All the energy, ideas, and drive pouring through our house means even on our days and hours off work, we’re still on duty. Building, dreaming, making.

It’s no wonder our dog has developed a chewing problem. Like right now. He’s chewing up his new bed because I’m sitting here, writing this post. [Oh, wait. Update. He's now destroyed a wooden meat tenderizer. Great.]

Luckily, Rob and I balance well. Whether it’s pure coincidence, sheer effort, or pure adoration, his creative good days tend to balance my not-so-great ones, and vice versa. And it helps to have your best friend get exactly where you’re coming from. Even if you have a hard time grasping it yourself sometimes.

But regardless, it’s still there, haunting us both and every day of our creative lives. The love affair our culture has for the youthful success story. Each day that passes adds to a year more of our lives, of our time, spent waiting. Watching. Working.

What are we waiting for?

Impatience overwhelms us. Not just Rob and I, but an entire generation of idealistic, educated, aspiring people. We worry that we’re wasting away. We move and make and create and go. And still, potential is everywhere. Brooding, waiting, restless.

It’s a healthy dose of impatience. It’s constructive, not destructive. And yet, here we are. And the questions remain.

Like, what, exactly, is the deal with paying dues?

Paying dues seems submissive to broken structures.

Dealing with hierarchies, working within silos, it all seems so silly, so outmoded, so non-productive. It’s difficult, sometimes, for my generation to see the point in dealing with it all. In fact, an incredible number in Generation Y want to avoid the corporate life altogether and be their own boss. But, wait. I’ve learned a few things on my days on the corporate side. You can actually pay your dues while still stirring the pot. In fact, maybe the best way to create change in hierarchies still governed by more mature generations is to work well within the structures that exist. And through that, to earn the trust you can use to innovate. After all, blowing things up isn’t the only way to change a landscape.

Paying dues takes time.

But so does other important stuff. Getting an education. Finding a mate to marry. Buying a house. So what’s all the fuss about how long it takes you to get to your dream? Why does it matter how much time you spend paying your dues, as long as you’re learning and growing along the way? After all, experience is still important. And as far as I can tell, it’s still one of those things that only comes through time. The problem, it seems to me, is when you start “paying dues” for dues’ sake. For the ladder. For the climb.

Paying dues doesn’t always pay off.

This is by far the most difficult reality I’ve had to face in my career. It’s perhaps the most difficult thing most people face. But going through the experience personally, I know one thing for sure. Paying your dues doesn’t have to actually be about going anywhere - whether up or out.

Instead, if you choose, paying your dues can be all about getting you ready for the journey. Wherever that leads. That, after all, is something you can control yourself.

So what?

Worrying about whether or not you should pay dues at work, or as you work toward your goals, is a waste of time. Because, chances are, you’re going to have to pay them at some point in time. Instead, figure out how to make your dues work for you, too. Whether or not it gets you a promotion, there’s a lot of value that you can gain:

In the end, paying your dues at work, or anything, is rarely about paying something that’s undue.

Instead, it’s about investing. Your time. Your talent. Your potential. Not just into some company or job or goal. But into yourself. So, give yourself the time you need to do and learn and grow into what you desperately want to be.

It will make the ride that much funner - and faster - if you slow down and experience the journey.

Don’t worry. You’re getting there.

By Tiffany Monhollon | May 28, 2009

Topics: Career, Generations, Learning, Success, Work |

20 Responses to “The Trouble With Paying Dues”

  1. Monica O'Brien Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I am shocked I’m the first to comment because this post is wonderful. Actually, my favorite line is that one of the benefits to paying your dues, even if they don’t pay off the way you exppect, is “realistic growth, the kind you can handle.” So often we push ourselves too far and make stupid mistakes because we took on more than we could chew.

    I understand about constant dreaming and creating. It’s exhausting. Luckily, my husband wants to be a doctor - a perfectly stable, clear cut career path. He has since 8th grade. It makes communication more difficult between us at times, but in the end it’s so much easier to manage one nutty career (mine) rather than two.

    My dog chews stuff too, but it’s usually because she wants a walk.

    Thank you for this post!

  2. Daniel Hoang Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    It depends on what you define as paying your dues. Typically, it’s commonly known as experience, time spent doing something, etc. The 20 year man outranks the 2nd year newbie because he paid his dues, put in his 15 years for the company and “deserves” the benefits and perks. The modern company or structure should focus more on output, outcomes, or performance. Ranking, if used, should be based on performance, not time spent doing something. For example, just because you’ve spent 20 years adding up invoices doesn’t mean you’re the best at it. It just means you’ve spent 20 years doing it.

  3. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    @Monica - Thanks. Realistic growth is completely underrated. That link about NBA players fascinates me. All that success, all that money, and without the self-knowledge and self-leadership, the maturity to handle it, it’s all gone within five years?

    Learning how to handle what you’ve got (or will get), to be a good steward of whatever leadership you have developed in your career, is something I’m really focusing on right now, so I’m glad that resonated.

    I really love the fact that Rob and I think a lot in the same ways. There aren’t a lot of people in my life who are built that way. So even though it’s exhausting, it’s enlightening, too. We can say the hard things to each other and know that it’s still coming from the absolute best place.

    My poor Kashi. He gets a run in every day, but still, it’s not enough! Hoping once he’s out of the puppy phase he will mellow out some - enough that I can trust him around my laptop cord so he doesn’t feel so lonely while I write!

  4. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    @ Daniel - This is a great point. I think most people see the concept of paying dues in this light. It’s a very opressive concept in this way of thinking.

    And that’s exactly what the problem with paying dues is - what we percieve it to be. But really, we can choose what we want paying dues to mean - to us. And we are the ones who really matter in empowering ourselves in our career. Because we are the ones who decide whether we stay or leave, in the best and worst of situations.

    There’s a thought that I love from leadership expert John Maxwell that is behind my thinking on this. He says that in most organizations, when people face obstacles (such as, I’m paying my dues but still not getting anywhere) there are two options. You can either leave or you can learn. Rarely can you do both. And most people miss out on the learning opportunity that is available. Even if they stay.

    So, while you’re paying your dues, focus on what moments are teachable, how you can develop yourself as a leader, instead on where you want your time and dues to take you. Because this attitude and persistence is actually the kind of thing that eventually gets people ahead of the curve.

  5. Stuart Foster Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Professional growth is an interesting thing. Mainly because we all approach it in a different manner. For some of us being the CEO of a Fortune 500 isn’t beyond our grasp for others it’s to be the hotdog vendor at Fenway Park.

    Growth has to be realistic for ourselves. But we can’t forget that all of us grow at different speeds. I have no illusion that this past September I did not know shit compared to what I do now. Is that fast? Maybe…but I think it was right for me.

    Love the thoughtfulness of this post Tiffany.

  6. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    @ Stuart - The tension between individual and collective is really interesting to me, especially in our generation.

    We speak in “we” so often, it’s hard not to compare your journey against the other visible successes in your peer group. At the same time, each of us is very aware of our individuality. Our world is so highly customizable, it’s inescapable.

    So sometimes, I think we get lost between these two extremes. When what we need to do is understand how to learn from the collective (look at what we are doing as a group!) and empower ourselves as indidviduals.

  7. Ryan Stephens Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    One of my favorite posts you’ve written of late Tiffany!

    I like the notion that paying dues depends a lot on where you want to go and what you want to accomplish.

    As long as I’m learning and growing and my close friends and family respect the decisions I’m making, I’m pretty content. There are days when I want to be a CMO of a Fortune 500 company by the time I’m 30.

    There are other days when I want to teach classes at a small school, consult & speak on the side, and just ensure that I can spend lots of time at home with a family.

    What’s hard is that the dues are different for each, and so I just insist that I never get comfortable, that I keep growing and learning, and I’m confident those experiences can translate across the board for the right fit.

  8. Lance Haun Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:33 am

    This is really fantastic. Great story telling, great message, and you absolutely nailed the conclusion.


  9. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Hey, Lance, thanks so much! It was a really challenging but rewarding one to write. I really, really appreciate the encouragement!

  10. Norcross Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:47 am

    I’m glad to see someone put out both sides of the argument. Too many Gen-Y’s just dismiss the idea of paying dues as something from the “older” crowd, and fail to see that it coincides with gaining experience, learning your trade, and becoming a more mature associate. Speaking for myself, while I had a lot of the skill set to do my job when I was 22 (I am 28 now), I wasn’t mature enough to handle everything else that went along with it. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in my current position that young, because I’d probably be out of a job altogether, with a reputation to match.

  11. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 2:29 am

    @ Norcorss - Thanks. I think that there’s something to be said for the wisdom that only comes with age and experience. It’s not worth wasting time complaining about things that are inevitable. Instead, figure out how to innovate with the structure that’s in place. After all, most people work for someone else. So realizing that every opporunity you have working for someone else is ALSO working for you, building your career story, just makes sense.

    Thanks for sharing your insight as someone who’s been in the job market for a while. I agree, if I’d had the responsibility I do now when I first started, there is a lot I wouldn’t know how to handle.

  12. Jamie Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 5:35 am

    So, I read this yesterday and I didn’t really have a comment, but reading it over just now has made me think of something.

    I know that I don’t mind paying my dues with, say, web design (which is what I’m doing right now), because I LOVE web design. I want to learn everything there is to know about web design, but I know that I can’t have all that information today. I understand I need patience.

    And, maybe that’s the issue. People pay dues at jobs they don’t enjoy thinking that the pay off will justify the misery. But, it doesn’t need to be that way. Maybe people don’t know what they want out of a career. Or they think they do, but once they get to that career it’s not anything they thought it would be (hello, my entire work history!).

    If paying dues is learning what you need to learn in the profession you’re passionate about, there shouldn’t be an issue. But when paying dues means learning about something you don’t think is interesting (and maybe the end goal is money or power), then that’s when, I think, people become angry about the dues.

    I just know that I get frustrated paying my dues in design, but at the end of the day, I am so happy to be doing what I’m doing. The dues are worth it.

  13. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 5:45 am

    @ Jamie - Really great points here. I think this comes up a lot, honestly.

    But part of what’s so important about paying dues is that by doing your best at whatever your job is, whether you love it or not, or have a clue what you want or not, it helps you learn to be your absolute best - and it helps you define yourself along the way.

    I think about some of the tasks I’ve had to do that I really hated. By choosing to do them well instead of just getting them over with or complaining, I learned not only what I liked and didn’t like, but how to learn in any situation.

    Let’s take homework, in school, for example. Geography. Gosh, I hated that class at first. But after the 52 I made on my first test, when I realized how bad I was at it, I decided that even though I despised it, I would do my best. I ended the class with an 89, and I can still have a knack for world capital trivia. I didn’t pursue anything to do with it, it wasn’t anything I was passionate about, but I proved to myself something very important by doing well in that class: I can really do anything well. Even stuff I hate. I think that persistence has paid off in my career. Because if you learn to do and accept the stuff you don’t like, it not only makes you that much stronger, it also directs you to the stuff you will love.

    For me, writing. Even though I got a 69 on my first English paper I turned in in public high school. I kept going through that process as well, and it ended up leading me to be great at the thing I love (Mrs. Terry’s strict rules on comma splices - auto C if one is in any paper - remain with me to this day).

  14. J.T. O'Donnell Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Tiffany, this is how much I look forward to your posts: When they arrive in my inbox, I identify and set special time aside to ensure I can enjoy the experience - this one did not disappoint!

    I do think it is the phrase “pay your dues” that is the problem. It just sounds depressing and wrong.

    When I get the ‘pay your dues’ phrase thrown at me, I try to remind myself that I wasn’t born walking. Work is the same way. While I may not be going at the pace I want, I know I’m still growing and advancing - even if I’m not conscious of it.

    It’s funny, I remember the passionate impatience I felt at 23. And more recently, I’m reliving it through a new employee of mine. He is bright, talented, and impatient. There are days I want to call all my bosses from my 20’s and say, “Okay, I get it. I was a handful.” But, I love his enthusiasm and try to take every opportunity to explain and provide added perspective that I hope can at least ease his impatience a bit.

    For those that are feeling that way, try to talk to your boss and put yourself in their shoes. Although, I realize it’s hard to imagine because you haven’t had many of the experience they’ve had (yet) that have shaped their thoughts and approach to work - but still try!

    Better still, I hope managers can take a walk down memory lane and remember what it was like to be just starting out. Instead of being frustrated by the impatience, I think it’s better to see it as a sign of future greatness and to harness it’s power. I’m sure trying to do that, and so far, it seems to be working. But then, perhaps you should ask the employee and see if he agrees…

  15. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    @ J.T. - Thank you so much. That means a lot, especially coming from you!

    Here’s what I love about this dialogue: getting the pserspective from both sides. I sit somewhere in the middle right now, with the benefit of having gone through a lot of the dues-paying time. And it’s really exciting to be at a point in my career where it’s already starting to pay off.

    I love hearing about the insight this process now gives you as a manager. That’s why it’s so important to learn along the way - because every single experience you are going through every step of the way can be an opportunity not just to improve yourself, but to help other people.

    Thanks for interjecting that concept into this discussion! It’s so very true.

  16. Carlos Miceli Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 1:46 am

    This is an amazing post. Really, best read of my week. Congratulations Tiffany.

    You bring up so many good points that instead of replying to them, I’ll tell you my personal opinion towards paying dues, and hopefully I’ll add some value to the discussion:

    Like Jamie said, it’s mostly about passion. Paying your dues only feels like paying when you’re working hard for something you don’t want. Once you realize where your passion is, paying becomes learning, it’s something that you understand it to be natural.

    I think the important thing to realize regarding our attitude towards paying our dues, is to understand that someday, we’ll be able to “connect the dots”, as Steve Jobs would say. I realize now looking back, that every job that sucked, every due I paid, has taught me invaluable lessons that were of some use later on. It’s all part of one big YOU.

    Everything serves a purpose, even listening to someone you feel is less capable than you giving you orders on who to do something. Paying our dues is mostly about learning some interpersonal skills anyway. It sucks, but one day, looking back, you’ll see it did some good.

  17. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 6:19 am

    @ Carlos - First, thanks so much for your kind words and adding your insight into the mix.

    I like the idea you bring up about what makes something feel like it’s a payment. Or, really, what makes people upset about having to pay - when they aren’t getting their money’s worth, right? But thinking about it as an investment, that has a better connotation to me. Because every investment is a risk - and what you’re hoping for is the reward.

  18. Is “Paying Your Dues” dead? at Jeremy Meyers dot com Says:
    October 12th, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    [...] noticed many blog posts lately about Millennials/GenY/etc in the workplace and their ’sense of entitlement’ or [...]

  19. Give Gen Y What They Want | Teri Guill - Life on the Cusp Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 3:47 am

    [...] as a sense of entitlement: that we expect to be given bigger and better positions without “paying dues”. The reality is that the learning and growth we seek doesn’t need to come with a new position; [...]

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    June 27th, 2012 at 8:15 am

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