Why It's Not So Bad to Be a 'Sell Out'

Once upon a time, I earned much of my freelance income writing corporate Web pages and white papers. One company I regularly worked for sold its wares to educational institutions and government agencies. Nice agencies like the U.S. Department of Labor and, quite possibly, your county clerk's office.

One day my client asked me to take on another "government" project. Expecting to once again write marketing copy aimed at social service agencies and parks and recreation departments, I agreed.

Unfortunately, my client was hoping to make a sale to another type of government agency: the Department of Defense. And unfortunately, I didn't know this until I'd signed the contract and received the project specs.

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When it comes to making money, everyone has a line they're unwilling to cross. This was mine. As far as I was concerned, writing about how my client's widgets would help the U.S. military shoot up some oil-rich nation or other was tantamount to endorsing our country's war du jour.

But I sucked up my scruples and tackled the job anyway, without complaint. Reneging on my contract would piss off my client and cost me future work, I told myself. And if that happened, I rationalized, it might be tough to pay my mortgage.

In other words, I sold out.

I still wince today when I think about this job -- and the fact that I was too cheap to walk off it. For many workers, though, selling out isn't as cut and dried as working for a company that, say, poisons baby seals or enslaves malnourished third-world children. More often than not, the only one who gets hurt when you sell out is you.

Show Me the (Dirty) Money

If you're new to the workforce and/or hopelessly idealistic, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Sooner or later, 99.9 percent of us "sell out" to some degree or other -- even freelancers and artsy-fartsy types like me.

But it's the way you sell out that counts. Maiming fluffy animals or robbing small children in the name of lining your bank account? Very, very bad. Poring over spreadsheets day in and day out so you can keep your electricity on and eat a hot meal each night? Far less bad.

"Every day I wake up and give myself a pep talk: 'Look at all the great things, including being able to pay my bills, develop a new expertise, et cetera,'" my friend Suzanne, a journalist turned marketing writer, said of her current staff job. "I'm grateful to be here -- and I love my boss, which is 80 percent of any job -- but I so don't care about this content and all the flapping about on the part of the client.

"Whereas with news stories," Suzanne continued, "I'd happily work overtime for breaking news or a special event like the Oscars or Emmys. I'm not lying when I say I have to figuratively plunge my head into the sink of ice cubes, a la Paul Newman, every single day to 'get it up' to do this."

Of course, there are limits to how much tedium (not to mention how many early-morning cold plunges) a body can take.

"Writing this crap seriously makes me want to stab my eyes out," said another friend, Stella, a freelance humor writer who occasionally takes copywriting jobs to make ends meet. "But it pays $80 an hour, which is almost as much as my shrink makes. A shrink that I no doubt wouldn't need if I were making enough money writing stuff I enjoy."

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