When I first started consulting in 2013, I was floored by the number of people who thought it appropriate to quote me a barely livable hourly rate. Until then, I’d been employed by corporations and agencies for 17 years and I felt confident in my acumen, experience, humility, creativity, and agility. So when someone tells me that my rate is too high or he or she can get someone younger and cheaper to do what I do, I nod, smile, and say, I don’t compete on price; I compete on quality of product and team fit. I tell them the infamous Picasso Napkin story, and, even then, that isn’t nearly enough as a means of measuring one’s worth.
Here’s the Napkin story: Picasso is sitting in a Paris café when a fan approaches the artist and asks that he make a quick sketch on a paper napkin. Picasso acquiesces, draws his dove and promptly hands it back to his admirer along with an ask for a rather large sum of money. The fan is flummoxed. “How can you ask for so much. It took you a minute to draw this.” (Sound familiar?) To which Picasso replies, “No, it took me 40 years.”
I used to joke that marketing is the art of throwing glitter on shit. We’re not here to sell you a product, rather, our goal is to divert your eyes to the shiny object next to the product we’re pitching. We sell you a story, seduce you with a narrative that transforms a passing interest into a want into a need into fervent desire. There’s art in that glitter, in the diversionary act of storytelling, regardless of what we’re peddling at the moment. Some are artisans when they’re 25, others at 60, and the only things separating the two are time and variation of experience. What threatens the two are complacency, ego, and myopic vision. The threats are what we should consider if we’re playing the long game.
Even though I have 20+ years of experience in my field, I would never consider myself an expert. I’m forever a student who teaches when the opportunity presents itself. I learn from mentors who are in their 60s and 70s as well as those in their 20s and 30s — both of whom have knowledge and verve to offer, and my work is distilling all the teaching to that which works for me.
I think about age, time and experience in two frustrating scenarios I’ve encountered over the past year. For ten years, I saw one dentist on New York’s tony Upper East Side. I never second-guessed my dentist, who, published frequently and cared for the mouths of the uptown elite. I didn’t doubt him even after I paid upwards of $7,000 on uninsured dental work that left my mouth a bleeding, aching minefield. Recently, I contracted a bookkeeper, because although I worked in an investment bank for three years, I can’t make any of my financials foot. This bookkeeper was self-taught, a young woman, a feminist and “go-getter”, and I felt good about giving her work until I started to question the quality of work I was receiving. The dentist and bookkeeper reside on opposite ends of the spectrum of age and experience and both had failed me. I’m now spending thousands to repair botched work.
Part of my having to pay money to clean up the mistakes made by others is partly my fault. I could’ve gotten a second opinion from another dentist, done more research on the failed bookkeeper. I could’ve stopped my innate desire to glitter toss. And then I think about all the clients who’ve returned to me to fix what others have broken (thus paying more money than they originally budgeted and thought they’d save), and I’ve come to realize that great work is more than being a Picasso Napkin story.
One’s totality of experience isn’t an exemption from failure, but rather an ego that needs constant checking, an experience that requires constant re-learning, a refreshment and cross-mentorship from those coming up in the ranks. Those who are just starting out need to acknowledge their experience, areas for growth balanced by the benefit they bring, and more importantly, they need to demonstrate a hunger to learn and be humbled by their education. Their proposition can’t simply be: We’re new! We’re cool! We’re rallying against the olds! And the discerning consumer can’t be blinded by the comfort of age or the desire to cling to a shiny object; they need to fight the urge to toss glitter on themselves, or, in my case, my draining bank account.