Why You Shouldn’t Pay Your Dues

career, writer's room, zen assistant
work frustration

We’re all paying our dues.

Just read any “millennial struggle” article, about the challenges in breaking in, standing out, or moving up.

Like, this one in the NY Times:

This is especially true in more creative fields, whether it is filmmaking or publishing. “It’s fashion,” said Dawn Joyce, 24, when asked why she has gone through four internships since 2010. Those include unpaid stints at a major fashion magazine, where she mingled with Zooey Deschanel and Julianne Moore at photo shoots, and at a public relations firm, where she held front-row seats for late-arriving celebrities like Selena Gomez. “I consider myself to be pretty jaded already.”

“I have seen a lot of people beside me quit,” Ms. Joyce added. “It’s sort of like, ‘Let’s see who lasts the longest.’ ”

Yes, the industry is tough.

Yes, it’s easy to feel jaded.

Ms. Joyce sees internships as the endurance test to pay her dues.

Which is a mistake. She shouldn’t be paying her dues. 

I’ll explain what I mean, but first here’s what I don’t mean..

I don’t mean, show up in Hollywood clutching your coffee stained spec script, and expect Scott Rudin or Harvey Weinstein to drop everything to take your call.

Or that if you believe your script is a “rarity amongst a sea of sameness,” you’re entitled to harass a producer who’s passed on the project

Of course not.

(Another closer-to-home example: my friends hired an “intern-from-hell” who will take breaks from the coverage he’s working on, step into an agent’s office, and proceed to pitch their own spec.

This takes some balls…

And a whole can of stupid:

The assistants are the ones who will read your script… and pitch it to their friends… or put you up for jobs…

Way to piss off the gatekeepers. Idiot.)

If you’ve followed along with Fighting Broke, you know that I am the anti-matter of that self-entitled line of thinking.

Then What’s My Problem with Paying Your Dues

My problem is that paying dues implies a time proposition.

Generally, employees equate “paying your dues” with, “I have worked at this job for the last X years and I am owed a raise/promotion/partnership/corner office.”

Employees aren’t the only ones stuck in the time proposition framework. Employers are guilty too: (examples TK)

  • Minimum 1 year experience on a desk (preferably agency or management company)
  • Minimum 2 years experience as an Executive Assistant to a CEO or Senior Level Manager/Executive at a studio or digital media network
  • 6-month probationary period before salary increase
  • 3-month probationary period before health insurance
  • 1-year performance reviews and compensation adjustments

“I’ve Paid My Dues”

A writer/producer was telling me about her friend, who’s been stuck in the script coordinator position for years, without getting promoted to staff writer. They were indignant. Their attitude was:

“I deserve the bump up. I’ve done the job for years now and I’ve paid my dues.”

I hear this. And it makes me laugh. And cry.

But mostly laugh.

Because this mentality is about two decades out of date.

Before what Lynda Obst dubbed Hollywood’s Great Contraction, (pre-writer’s strike, pre-decline of DVD sales, pre-decline of the TV movie business) there were many more opportunities to move up in the film/television business.

The framework of, “hey, I’m going to do my time, learn the ropes, and if I work hard for 2 or 3 years, yeah, I’m going to get promoted,” worked.

Post Hollywood’s Great Contraction, that framework no longer applies.

Getting that bump up, just because you “worked hard” and “put in your time” isn’t automatic. In some cases, it feels non-existent. Many of my entertainment friends are finding the move from assistant to creative executive impossible: after spending 3 to 5 years in the assistant track, and learning everything they’ll learn by being on someone else’s phone calls, they’re looking to make that CE jump…

Only to realize there’s no place to land.

Instead of Paying Dues, Focus on This

If paying your dues isn’t the solution, then how do you succeed?

How can we adjust our framework?

How can you get that bump up from script coordinator…

How will my friends finally make that CE jump…

How do any of us make that next transition in our careers?

We have to adjust our focus from a time proposition… 

Into a value proposition. 

What value have you created for your company and employer?

How have you:

  • Made them more money?
  • Helped them save money?
  • Increased their quality of life?
  • Reduced their level of stress?

Make no mistake: building a business, or building something for the world, is a battle. The question always nagging your employer’s mind, when they’re thinking about promotions and raises is: “Who do I want with me when we go to battle again?”

The answer is never: “well, this person’s been here for 3 years, I guess they’ll do, lol!”

Hell no. The answer is: “The person I can count on, no matter what. The person who created value. The person who got it done, no matter what.”

Change the Proposition from Time to Value

As we build our careers, stop looking at things in terms of time. Look at it from a framework of value.

Making this tweak changes the fabric of your work. It even changes the words you use:

“I’ve been here for 2 years, first as an assistant and then as a coordinator.”


“In this role, I pitched x, y, z, projects, which led to us securing A client and B financing.”

And no, following your job description to the letter is not adding value. Sorry… 

That’s just doing your job.

Adding value means elevating your game beyond having all the scripts printed and bradded and ready the moment the writers enter the room, staying late to complete an assignment, and never dropping a phone call.

Adding value is what you do on top of all this. Again, the framework revolves around how you’ve:

  • Made them more money?
  • Helped them save money?
  • Increased their quality of life?
  • Reduced their level of stress?

When you enter a job or a company or a show with the mentality that: “I want to accomplish these things” this colors every action and interaction you have.

Compare this to the paying your dues mentality: “I’m going to work here for 2 years, then start looking for my promotion.”

Whose career would you want?


Photo Credit: Phil and Pam

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