Illustration: The True Cost of Selling Out — ©2016 Chris Wilson

What Happens When You Sell Out: Lessons Learned

Chris Wilson


This rewrite of a years-old post was inspired by a project that landed in my lap last week. The project was “mine to lose,” as the saying goes, and as far as projects go, it was a pretty good one. A large company with a lot of money, only one sales person and no marketing team. They need everything. And I was the choice of someone who is consulting with them. All I had do to was raise my hand and show up for the job. Instead, I passed.

It wasn’t the easiest decision, especially right now, 9 months after being laid off from ESPN, and I’m still looking for steady work, but it was easier now than it used to be. After looking over the company and the type of work they do, I realized I couldn’t stand behind them. Basically, working for them would go against my principles.


Everyone has principles of some sort.

Principles can be positive:

The principle that human life is precious means that in most lands, killing our fellow man is morally wrong.

Among vegetarians, the principle that man is not superior to other creatures has inspired the concepts of refraining from the consumption of meat and the mistreatment of animals.

Principles can be negative:

Among cheaters, the principle that ‘it’s only wrong if you get caught’ makes cheating acceptable (as long as you don’t get caught).

Among thieves, the principle that ‘a person who can’t take the time to protect their valuables doesn’t deserve to keep them’ allows a thief to take another’s property and not think twice about it.


Interacting with the world, we make decisions every day that are based on our principles. Most decisions are small and easy, but some are tougher. And taking a stand based on your principles can be a difficult and lonely task. Even if you have support from family and friends, at the exact moment you have to make your position known, you are often alone. And having to make the same decision over and over again can be tiring.

For example, when you work for an employer, taking a stand is generally not an ongoing issue. You take your stand the first time, and the outcome is often either:

  • You are fired.
  • You aren’t fired, but you find you need to quit
  • You keep your job and your employer shuffles the offending tasks off to another employee who is comfortable handling the work (and yes, might get more promotions than you because she is more flexible).

As a business owner, however, you will have to make your position known each and every time a project you object to comes along. For some, telling clients that you aren’t interested in a job based on principle is tough. And why not? You risk no longer being their resource of choice when you make them go hunt down someone else to handle the job you didn’t want. In fact, often we will find other reasons to turn a job down, often citing a heavy workload or conflict of interest or some other bogus excuse in order to avoid giving the real reason.

This, however creates its own problem. Without a clear understanding of why they were turned away, the client might come back again and again with similar jobs that you will also have to turn away. On the other hand, if you are upfront the first time, it will clear up these misunderstanding. It may also gain you the respect of such a client (even if you don’t keep their business).

SELLING OUT (but only a little, right?)

Ah, if only all situations were so black and white, but life often finds ways to make things difficult for us. Some reasons a decision might be difficult to make are:

  • A job is right on the border of what you’d find objectionable, skirting the line, but not actually crossing it.
  • Someone REALLY likes your work and offers more money, hoping your principles have a price. And like it or not, money talks to all of us. Sometimes it speaks very loudly, and can start to drown out our conscience.
  • When money is short, any job seems more urgent than it should, especially if people other than yourself depend on your income.
  • Sometimes an odd job you’d rather not do will come down from a regular client; one you don’t want to lose or offend.


I know its tough. I try to live my life by principles found in the Bible, and I’ve been in all of the above situations.

For example, in the past I’ve turned away very lucrative work offers for adult websites, design work for violent video games and the occasional job for various religious and non-religious holidays. While I freely admit that I haven’t always made the best decisions, at least I can say that I’ve learned from my bad ones. I’d like to share my own observations on what I’ve learned from making poor decisions:

Your conscience is malleable and will bend where you put pressure on it. Taking a borderline job this time actually pushes the border back, so that next time a similar job comes up, it is no longer your borderline, something worse is.

Saying ‘yes’, even once, often leads to a barrage of similar offers.

A client that sees that you will accommodate them even a little beyond where you want to go, will eventually ask you to go further.

The money you make from a questionable job is quickly spent, but your memory and knowledge of having done it stays with you a long time. Especially if you see the client is still using it years after you created it (I.e., a logo you designed plastered to the side of a truck owned by a business you wish you hadn’t supported).

Those who depend on you to feed them depend on you even more for other things. They are counting on you to remain who you are, to show them how to stand by their own principles and how to remain true to themselves. They need someone they can look up to.

Most clients, even your best ones, eventually go away, anyway. Its the way of modern business.

Both you and your business have reputations to uphold. In this day and age, your reputation is often your greatest marketing asset. If you diminish or destroy it, you will feel it economically and socially.

Whatever your principles are, stick to them. Whenever your conscience tells you that you might be over the line, even just a little, listen to it. Check things out. See if you’re about to do yourself more harm than good, and if you are, walk away. There’s little that feels worse professionally than having work in your portfolio that you are morally ashamed of, or having people use your hard work to support something you are morally opposed to.

Originally published at



Chris Wilson

Accessibility-minded UX/UI Designer. History: Studio Animation, Illustration, Multimedia Design, Podcasting