Conventional wisdom says to follow your passions, and everything will fall into place. One year ago, I stopped listening to that advice. I was working an entry-level job at a media agency, making $35,000 a year to put photos in Powerpoint presentations. Advertising seemed glamorous—think Mad Men meets Samantha Jones—but there was nothing inspiring about my current role. I realized that my innermost skills were never going to be fully utilized at my job, so I made a promise to myself: I will craft my own future. I will create my own opportunities. I will make what I’m worth. And then one year later, I more than doubled my salary.
While some people have positive experiences in media, mine was not. I was barely making ends meet and not saving for my future. I had convinced myself that all future jobs would be the same, that I would be chronically underpaid and undervalued.
Valinda Lee, a career counselor and associate director at Scripps College, is familiar with these types of concerns. “One of the theories of career counseling is called the Chaos Theory: small events can have disproportionately large impacts on your career system. Maybe you have a terrible boss or are underpaid, and you can’t see your full potential,” Lee explained. “If all you do is follow the same pattern, you’re not creating opportunities for you to have financial wellness, or career happiness. You need to create those chances to grow.”
The path wasn’t easy—I stayed at my hellish full-time role for way too long. But I started a side hustle that eventually led to a huge transition in my career. When I started I completely reversed what I thought was true: That I needed to focus on what I was passionate about in order to be paid my worth. And I’m grateful I did.
I was no longer going to allow someone else to determine my financial future.
I connected with entrepreneurs who owned businesses I admired, and wrote “cold” messages to them on LinkedIn. By vouching for the skills I knew I had, my side business blossomed. I was bringing in over $500 more each month and discovered skills I never knew I had: business development, copywriting, website design, and more.
By focusing on my skills, not my passions, I doubled my income and gained the confidence to make an informed transition in my full-time career. The key was thinking about the value I could create for the world.
And so, during my job search, I looked at my career from a bird’s eye view and asked myself: What am I good at, and how can I be paid to do that full-time? What are the jobs that would allow me to develop in these key areas?
When I’d nailed down interviews for several jobs, it was time to negotiate. But talking about the skills I had developed with my side hustle was challenging especially because my full-time role was not a great example of my strength. If you find yourself in a similar situation the founder of Ask For It, and negotiation expert, Alexandra Dickinson has a solution.
“[In an interview] frame the conversation more about the skills you bring to the table, rather than drawing strict distinctions between your job and side hustle,” Dickinson said. “Use your judgement and talk about your skillset as a whole.”
To prepare, I did research online for my target salary—checking Glassdoor, Salary.com, and Payscale to determine the industry averages. It’s important that you gather as many salary numbers as you can find, but to make it less overwhelming, aim for five. Once you’ve settled on a general number, it’s time to start talking to employees about how the company values their work and the structure in place for promotions or raises.
“It’s so tempting to rely on the internet for all of our research, because that’s how we live our lives these days. But if you want to get a sense of how employees feel about whether they’re being valued for their work, you’ll learn more by talking to people,” Dickinson said. “Getting a diverse sample—four or five women and men at different levels of the organization — will give you more information.”
After my interviews offers started rolling in. I wouldn’t accept anything lower than the target salaries I had determined. I was no longer going to allow someone else to determine my financial future.
The advice I wish someone had told me earlier? Don’t wait for some inner passion to surface, go and find the skills you never knew you had. And then get paid for them.