Paying dues is so old school

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One of the most important career moves of the new millennium is getting out of paying dues. Paying one’s due is an antiquated idea in a workplace where few people aspire to climb the same corporate ladder for 45 years.

Eve Tahmincioglu interviewed 55 leaders for her book, From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top. She found that one of the most common refrains during her interviews was the importance of paying one’s dues. People in leadership positions today think that is important.

However, Tahmincioglu reminds us that what you get from paying your dues is top-of-the-ladder positions that force you to give up almost all your time with your family. In ruminating about what she found from talking with CEOs, Tahmincioglu said, “?”?This is a ridiculous job. If you’re going to get to the top, you need to make sacrifices. You need a spouse at home and you should expect not to spend a lot of time with your children.”

Tahmincioglu echoes what most people today feel about the job of a CEO: Ridiculous. The 80-hour-plus work week is nothing to aim for, and once you decide that you’re not going to climb that ladder, why pay dues? The dues are what you pay when you’re at the bottom in order to get a proverbial ticket to try climbing to the top.

Today’s climb looks different. For one thing, people want personal growth and workplace flexibility – two things not typically valued by people who are hell-bent on seeing people pay dues. The other difference about today’s climb is being able to skip the bottom rung. So the climb looks more like a hop to a spot where you can enjoy yourself without having to worry about the next rung.

Laura Vanderkam has a word for this: grindhopping. In her book, Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues, Vanderkam offers a smorgasbord of career choices and essential skills that will get you out of paying dues while still providing opportunities for challenging and rewarding work.

Her basic idea is for people to take personal responsibility for their goals and career development instead of relying on someone else. She advises people to create benchmarks for themselves and get used to the fact that if they are not climbing a ladder, there is no single clear path. You need to “?”?Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she advises.

Vanderkam suggests people think “?”?in terms of projects, and not jobs” and then perform like a star so they get more of them. But there are other ways to get past dues-paying as well: People can start their own companies, or skip the heavy dues-paying industries and go into an area that is not as cutthroat.

Raedia Sikkema did just that. She has a degree from the film and television program at New York University with a specialty in animation. Most classmates went to work on feature films for studios such as Sony and Pixar. But she worked on education projects for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“?”?I used to think that working anywhere else [but a big studio] would be sad and not that important. But years down the line, sure you’re working on a feature film, but all you’ve done is a character’s arm.”

Today Sikkema does financial graphics at Lineplot Productions. She works from home, sets her own hours, and controls a project from start to finish rather than working on only one small piece as she pays her dues.

For Sikkema, making the tough choice to not follow her industry’s dues-paying track has paid off: “?”?I feel my work is more creatively fulfilling because I got to do more, even though it was not in a glamorous position.”

The trick to all of this, of course, is being able to market yourself to the people who can give you the work you want. “?”?Position yourself in a way that is true to you, not just as a fit into someone else’s mold,” says Jennifer Kushell, whose company Your Success Network helps young people market themselves professionally. “?”?You need to know what’s special about you and what makes you different,” she says.

Like many things in life, what’s good about not paying your dues is also what’s bad: You get to do work that is true to you, but you have to figure out what that work is to ensure you are good enough at it to get work. So yes, that’s tough stuff, but many will say that it’s much less tough than paying your dues. And really, why do it if you don’t have to?

42 replies
  1. Potres
    Potres says:

    Paying your dues is more of a legacy issue than anything else. It all starts with a CEO who will tell you how meaningless the first job he had out of college was and how hard he had to work to get to where he is now. So he'll make everyone go through the same process because he had to do it. Very often it's not so much about what you learned while you were paying your dues, but about the "right" way to grow your career.
    I hope they realize that story about their career path interests me as much as weather conditions in Siberia today. It might be something that is interesting to know, but I won't use it when I'm planning my day.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    We’re now entering an era of a labour shortage — or a talent shortage in most growing industries (film industry may not be one of them). This makes paying dues irrelevant at all corporate levels. Not everyone recognizes it yet, but it’s here or pending depending upon the organization and location.

    A CEO that insists on staff paying dues before they receive more than 2 weeks vacation, or higher salaries, will quickly find that he or she cannot find enough staff to meet business commitments. A “survival of the fittest” process has already started to destroy some “dinosaur” organizations.

    If an organization wants to employ and keep the best performers it will have to throw away notions of hierarchy and paying dues or the best performers will simply go elsewhere.

    All you’ll be left with are the under achievers who are happy to have found an organization where they can underachieve their way up a corporate ladder simply by showing up and sitting at a desk 8 hours (or more) a day. And this is not a recipe for success in today’s fast moving economy.

  3. Tom Morgan
    Tom Morgan says:

    I love this post as all of us, younger or older, want to have fun at work, learn and grow through our projects, and have plenty of time for family and friends.

    Your recommended “Your Success Network helps young people market themselves professionally.”, however can you recommend any similar companies that target the marketing of older people?

    * * * * * * *

    Hi, Tom. I actually think that a good career coach will help you do that. Younger people have different issues — for example, they have never had to frame themselves in terms of work — thus the separate company geared toward them. But many career coaches are great at helping people market themselves in the workplace.

    For starters: A few weeks back I did a Coachology about Debra Feldman, at Job Whiz. She’s really great at marketing a candidate. If you want other names, you can email me.


  4. AjiNIMC
    AjiNIMC says:

    According to me a human being needs following things

    1) Love
    2) Identity and Recognition
    3) Urge to create
    4) Money

    The last 3 sometime prevail over the first one in corporate world, sometimes knowingly sometimes unknowingly.

    Success has a relative definition but many follow others success. Ask 100 people, what will you like to sacrifice? “Your spouse time” or “Your career growth”. Honest people will accept that they are doing the former without accepting that they are following the later.

    >> Tahmincioglu echoes what most people today feel about the job of a CEO: Ridiculous.
    Job is the CEO may be ridiculous but the word CEO is so catchy that everyone is ready to do the job.

  5. nicolemarie
    nicolemarie says:

    I think that women are worse than men as bosses when it comes to this issue of paying your dues, especially if the employee is a female. I’ve had both male and female bosses and have always found that the women were the ones that constantly felt the need to remind me that when they were my age they had to do X, Y and Z and now it was now my turn. This is something I absolutely hated because instead of finding a mentor, someone who wanted me to succeed and wanted to help me make it to the next level, they just wanted to make me pay my dues as they had before. And this was the same for a women boss who was in her 30s and one in her 50s. But that’s just my experience.

    * * * * * *

    For those of you who are appauled by this comment, you should know that women say this to other women, under their breath, all the time. So I like that someone not only said this on the blog, but used her real identity. I don’t think a lot of people would do that, even though a lot of people say it.(That said, I feel it’s important to also say that I have had some excellent women mentors.)


  6. Richard
    Richard says:

    I disagree with this entry’s theme. Yes, the antiquated way of “paying one’s due” is done. I know of a small fraction of people paying dues to climb the ladder. Frankly, these people scare me.

    Dues will be paid but through life experience. Life is the biggest cutthroat industry there is. Just because you skip the corporate world doesn’t
    mean life will be a rosy string of projects. You will make mistakes and experience failures during your career. This is what paying dues is all about. Success will come to those who have paid their dues through past failures.

    * * * * * *

    This is an intersting point, Richard. I agree, experience matters a lot. But one of the best parts of life is that each of us gets to decide which experiences we want, what we will learn from. We can’t control everything, but we can control a lot. When you pay your dues in a corporate setting, it’s more that someone else is deciding that for you.

    Also, typically paying one’s dues is not so much about learning and growing as it is about doing the crummy work that no one else wants to do.


  7. Howie
    Howie says:

    I think it’s only necessary to pay dues if you want to climb up. But I don’t think that the top would be that rewarding. Using it for a positions that compliment our needs and performance is nice enough.

  8. Raedia
    Raedia says:

    Hope you don’t mind if I weigh in on the discussion here! I used to be really hung-up on the idea of working at a big film studio on a feature, and even when I started working on smaller videos and TV projects I always dreamed about going to LA and doing movies. But over time I saw that my classmates who did that ended up spending years doing really menial tasks – managing files, or tweaking minor things that you don’t even see on screen. At least in animation, there’s no shortage of labor at all, because tons of people are studying 3D in college now, so the studios have plenty of kids coming in who are happy to do the boring stuff for long hours and low pay. If you’re not interested in doing that, then I think you have to find an alternative way to get the career you want!

    Of course, that’s just my style of working – I’m happy managing projects on my own with minimal supervision, while other people might need the constant interaction of a big office. And it is different in a creative field – I think it’s easier to find work as a freelancer on interesting projects than it would be in other industries. Being able to specialize and market yourself makes a big difference too – that I can say that I do scientific and educational graphics makes me stand out to an employer in a way that a generalist might not.

  9. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    Penelope – €“ excellent post. As a Millennial I know that I get completely turned off by the idea of paying my dues solely for the purpose of paying my dues. It just doesn't make sense and I agree that it is a legacy thing.

    I also want to point out that something you touch on here is a very important idea to me as a young worker – €“ the idea of being paid for and measured by project work. I absolutely love the idea of working on projects with deadlines and no set hours. I think this is truly the definition of a blended life (or at least mine) – €“ here's your task and it needs to be done by this date – €“ that's it. Now I realize the easiest way to get there is by being self-employed but I think corporations are going to have to understand this and embrace it as well. Of course not every position is going to be afforded this flexibility (for instance a security guard or receptionist has to be at a location during set hours), but for many positions it will be possible.

    Another great post. Thanks!

  10. Greg
    Greg says:

    An arbitrary system of "paying your dues" has always been flawed, and great leaders have never held to that.

    However, if "paying dues" means getting down in the dirt and learning from the bottom up, then make them pay! People should know their area of business inside out. How many subscribers to this blog have worked under management that did not really understand what they were managing or selling?

    When I worked for Taco Bueno (fast-food chain) twenty years ago, nobody started out higher than an assistant manager, and they had to work the position a minimum of six months (even if they were fast-tracked for an executive position). The idea was not "dues-paying" for the sake of it. Rather, the business was about selling tacos; the most junior employee could discuss slinging tacos and busting suds with the most senior executive and be understood. In fact, every employee who did not work in a restaurant (office, warehouse, etc) had to work five days a year in a restaurant. I found this to communicate what was important in the business.

  11. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I think Greg’s point is a good one. There is definitely value to knowing the real issues happening “in the trenches”. However, a great manager is aware of this fact and makes a point be constantly updated on what’s going on.

    I’m not talking about a mandatory five days a year on the front lines. I mean making monthly visits, having open discussion all the way up the chain, getting off the management high-horse and really learning.

    If you, as a manager, are really commited to these principles, you don’t have to start out as a “taco slinger” to make a big impact.

    Passion and dedication (of quality, not quantity of hours) make paying dues obsolete.

    * * * * *

    Jacqui – I love this comment because you synthesize two of my favorite ideas. Manage every day and don’t pay dues. Now that you point it out, I see they are so related. Makes me happy, like somehow everything comes together…


  12. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    It’s remarkable how often “you need to pay your dues” really translates into, “I had to go through hell, so I’ll be damned if you get off scott free.”

    Think about the antiquated system of rotations for doctors, where people are required to work 36 hour straight, even though the effects of sleep deprivation towards the end of the shift are probably worse than being drunk. We would never tolerate doctors swigging tequila straight from the bottle before performing surgery, so why the heck should we tolerate what is essentially a hazing system to cause needless deaths?

    On the other hand, CEOs and top executives regularly make critical business decisions without having seen an actual customer using their product in years, possibly decades?

    We all have to pay our dues in the sense that we need to invest the hard work it takes to truly understand the issues. But paying your dues isn’t something that you do once when you’re young, and then get a free pass on for the rest of your life. Paying your dues is a continuous process that applies to everyone. We should all be paying our dues every single day.

  13. nicolemarie
    nicolemarie says:

    It would be one thing if “paying your dues” meant that you had to work hard and be dedicated to your profession but it doesn’t. As Chris points out, this idea of “paying your dues” really translates into, "I had to go through hell, so I'll be damned if you get off scott free." I think it’s important to put this in perspective as I feel, sometimes, at least, the older generation looks at the younger ones as being lazy and in general as a group that expects everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. And while, yes, there are those who may actually think this way (but isn’t that the case with certain members of any generation?), I’d argue that there are many others that don’t mind working hard hard they just don’t like being shit on.

  14. Irene
    Irene says:

    I agree. If it isn’t necessary, why do all the trouble. Sometimes our acts will give us something we can’t manage. It’s better if we make sure of the things we do before considering it.

  15. Dean L Heaton
    Dean L Heaton says:

    “Paying your dues” to get that high level position just doesn’t cut it today. Dues could now equate to nepotism and shouldn’t the top job go to the most qualified person for that job?

    But if you’re happy down below, could “dues” just be seen as the learning period or, in case of an apprenticeship, the period where you learn patience and commitment, and allow those above you to assess your suitability?

  16. Andy, school teacher
    Andy, school teacher says:

    – €˜ – €˜You need to know what's special about you and what makes you different,’' – great words. In my opinion, climbing to the top is not rewarding after all. It give you some satisfaction and then – oh no! – you are sick, tired and lonely :-) Sometimes our goals don’t let us enjoy our life if we don’t see anything around except them. And how long are we satisfied? One hour? One day? One weak? That’s why I think we should live for today, always listening to our hearts.

    That’s what “paying your dues” means to me.

  17. Checkers Tips
    Checkers Tips says:

    paying dues is top of the ladder positions that force you to give up almost all your time with your family.once you decide that you’re not going to climb that ladder, why pay dues? The dues are what you pay when you’re at the bottom in order to get a proverbial ticket to try climbing to the top.Today’s climb looks different.i think so it’s not necessary if we get high position level so we have to pay so i think so its a great and informative thanks to give this nice blog.

  18. Noelle Ibrahim
    Noelle Ibrahim says:

    and don`t forget there are managers who will make you pay your dues for years and just when you really feel that you can`t hold out for that big break for even one second longer, but you squeeze out that last bit of elbow grease anyhow – they snap your neck and throw you in the garbage before you see any reward. It`s not like there are any contractual agreements here. It`s all on an honour system.
    I don`t trust it.

  19. N
    N says:

    dues paying: the dishonest manager`s gateway to discrimination and selection of employees willing to look the other way regarding various abuses of power, including fraud.

  20. Home Removal Services
    Home Removal Services says:

    Sikkema is right: All you need to do is be true to yourself. People tend not to do it these days and are directly drown towards the corporate ladder thing and pay their dues for about 40 years of their life without even getting to the top for most people. I would advice everyone to do just what Sikkema did. Be true to yourself and choose quality of life over the corporate ladder. Great post by the way. Very interesting to see how people contributed to it.

  21. bagambe frank
    bagambe frank says:

    All ideas are indeed very good, but one thing I have to mention, being egocentric is very crazy and ridiculous. You can imagine this heart of not wanting to help. This is really very bad and it’s not development

  22. Evan
    Evan says:

    On the one hand yes, paying your dues is not what it used to be. However, it is a great way to learn things about your job, the corporate environment you are in and the people around you. Being smart about your career and setting a plan is very important. And that doesn’t always include the paying your dues part.

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