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  • Christine Silk

Recognition Addiction: Are You Giving Away Too Much for Free?

If you’re a creative type, being addicted to recognition can get in the way of monetizing your creativity. You can easily convince yourself that recognition is enough to keep going. You might find yourself trapped in unproductive cycles of giving away your stuff at a steep discount and not getting enough in return. We’ve all seen people -- creative and non-creative alike -- who crave attention so much that they are willing to do things for free just so that they’ll be in the spotlight. And it’s even worse in an age when so much is free on the internet. People have come to expect free stuff, especially from creative people. Too many creatives go along, hoping for a big payoff that never materializes. Many people are addicted to recognition, and they will forego payment just to obtain that recognition. This is not a problem if you are happy with that arrangement. But if you are not, read on.

I’m going to discuss how you can avoid the recognition-addiction trap. But first, let’s be clear about how people get rewarded.

Is Your Preferred Currency Recognition or Money?

There are two main currencies that people get paid in:

1. Money. This includes commissions, salaries, and barter arrangements. (An example of a barter arrangement in the publishing world would be offering graphic design services in exchange for copywriting services).

2. Recognition. This includes praise, compliments, status, job offers, and having a good reputation in your field. In short, it’s any positive feedback that’s not money.

Most people prefer to be paid in both money and recognition.

But some people mainly care about being paid in money, and will forgo recognition. In the writing world, this might include the behind-the-scenes workhorses such as ghostwriters, copywriters, and technical writers. Money is enough to fuel their motivation to keep producing. They don’t care about having their name on the by-line so long as the paycheck clears.

But many creatives are not happy producing incognito. That’s because many forms of creativity thrive on recognition, and are stoked by interactions with the audience. Think of actors, musicians, dancers, and comedians. Audience interaction helps those creatives refine and improve their output. Their audience is a source of further inspiration. Even many solitary creatives (such as writers) find audience interaction essential.

All these factors can make you, the creative type, vulnerable to recognition addiction.

How Not to Get Trapped by Recognition Addiction

If you think you might be caught up in the recognition-addiction cycle, how can you break free? Here are some questions to ask yourself before you say yes to anything:

1. Are you spending your time, energy, and talent on too many projects that you are giving away for free, rather than on projects you’d rather sell for actual money? Your time and effort and talent are your commodities. You own them. You have the right to monetize them if you so choose. You have the right to say “no” to a request if you think you are not being adequately compensated.

2. If you are willing to be paid only in the currency of recognition, are you actually getting the amount recognition and praise you deserve? How much is enough for you? This last question is especially important because it determines the answer to the first question. You’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself. If you’re not getting enough recognition, you risk suffering disappointment and unhappiness, and that kind of suffering might sap your creative energy.

3. Are you getting weak, intermittent reinforcement for your efforts? Are you being ignored completely? The first one, intermittent reinforcement, can be a particularly addicting condition to work under. You think: “Well, last time she didn’t praise me enough for what I did, but she did this time. So next time she asks me to do something for her, I’ll say yes because I’ll get more of what she owes me.” Being completely ignored can also be addicting, because you think if you just work a little harder this time, the elusive praise will pour forth – like a slot machine that will finally give you the payout you’ve been working for.

The Story of Fran and Her Amazing Talent

Let’s look at the story of Fran to see how recognition addiction plays out, and how to break free.

Fran is very artistic. In addition to designing jewelry and excelling at interior decorating, she knows how to design a table setting for maximum impact. She won first place at a table-setting competition (yes, that is a real thing). Her social media accounts and websites are beautiful, and she has followers, but not as many as she'd like.

Friends and family often ask her to design table settings for special occasions. For years, she jumped at these opportunities. She wanted to show off her skills whenever possible, even though it often meant working for free. She basked in the glow of compliments. In fact, during the planning stages, she’d daydream about the rave reviews and praises that would be sung in her name. She let herself imagine that they’d be so bowled over by her amazing skills that they’d seat her right next to the guest of honor and toast her with champagne. (Creative types have fertile imaginations that sometimes get out of control, in case you haven’t noticed.)

But now that she’s older, her perspective has changed. Looking back, she realized that reality often fell short of her daydreams. Yes, people were appreciative, they said thank-you and sent a note and maybe a fruit basket, but the recognition didn’t match the work she’d put into making it all happen. (Just for the record, there had never been a champagne toast in her honor.) After the big event, as she recuperated from exhaustion, she wondered whether it was all worth it. But all that agonizing was forgotten when another request rolled in. She said yes, hoping that this time she’d get the recognition she’d been hoping for. And so the recognition-addiction cycle continued.

The problem is, Fran was not sure how or when to say no to friends and family, even though she knew it was necessary. She was worried about being seen as greedy for wanting to monetize her talent, so she told herself that whatever crumbs of praise she got “should” be enough for her, as they had been in the past. But this wasn’t true any longer.

The final straw happened over the summer. Fran’s cousin Sonia asked her to design the table setting for an engagement party that Sonia was hosting. Fran said yes, but she had misgivings. Sonia had never given her much recognition through the years, except for shamelessly copying Fran’s ideas without giving her credit. Fran saw this engagement party as a chance to prove to Sonia just how talented she was, and finally get what she deserved in terms of recognition and praise from Sonia. In other words, she envisioned Sonia as a slot-machine who would finally shower Fran with the big-praise-pay-out she deserved.

Of course, Fran did an amazing job. She summoned every ounce of her talent and custom-designed elaborate centerpieces and party favors that were gorgeous and unique. She got so many compliments from so many of the guests that she lost track, and that felt good. She posted pictures on social media and got even more recognition and positive feedback. Her posts went viral. Several people wanted to hire her for their next event, and were willing to pay full price.

But there was a cloud in an otherwise sunny sky. Sonia wasn’t exactly effusive in her praise. Sure, Sonia had said thank-you to Fran and even sent a thank-you note and a bouquet of flowers. But Sonia let Fran know afterwards that maybe it had been a little too elaborate, and that it had cost a little too much, even though Fran had only asked to be reimbursed for the materials at wholesale prices. She hadn’t charged for her time.

In the weeks after, Fran ruefully thought about how much time and energy she could’ve saved herself if she’d just picked up some stock items at the party store and called it a day. She should’ve known it was going to be a bumpy ride when, early in the planning stages, she’d suggested an art deco theme, and Sonia thought “art deco” meant a new paint color at Home Depot.

So Fran sat down and did some hard soul-searching. She asked herself the questions listed above. She decided that the time she’d spent on Sonia’s party could’ve been better spent finding clients who would pay her for her talents, and promoting her online presence. She calculated the minimum amount of money she needed in order to say yes to a project. The money wasn’t going to replace praise and recognition, it was in addition to them. The amount of praise and recognition that she had received from Sonia just wasn’t enough to make it all worthwhile, especially since she wasn’t being paid any money.

Most important, she realized that she would never get the recognition from Sonia she felt she deserved. She finally accepted this fact, and didn’t waste any more time obsessing over it.

In the future, Fran decided she would waste no more of her time or talent on Sonia, nor on any other ungrateful friends or relatives. Yes, she was addicted to praise and recognition – and she admitted this to herself -- but she knew she could find other ways to get the recognition she needed without feeling as if she’d been shortchanged. Social media was one way. Having clients tell her how great they thought she was, and actually getting paid by them, was another way.

Should she give away her talent for free ever again? Maybe, but only for select individuals. And even then, she vowed to be choosy about what events she would agree to design for.

Now that she wouldn’t spend time giving away too much, nor wasting her energy trying to get recognition from ungrateful people, she could cultivate her business. She stayed focused, and built a thriving business and an online presence that gave her the praise and recognition she craved. She also made good money from paying customers.

Fran learned some important lessons.

1. Don’t dilute your brand by giving away all your time and expertise for free – especially to those who don’t appreciate it. People don’t value free stuff as much as they value that which they’ve had to pay for. People take free stuff for granted, even if that free stuff is of superior quality. Oh, and here’s another secret: A lot of people don’t know superior quality when they see it. So don’t expect freeloaders to give you meaningful praise or a fair rate if they can’t distinguish your excellence from ubiquitous mediocrity. Hold out for those with whom you can make a fair deal.

2. Monetary payment is a good way to find out if people truly value what you do. Are they willing to trade their hard-earned money for your product? Connecting with people who are willing to pay for your talent means you can discover those who actually care enough about what you do to put up cash. You might find them far better to work with than the freeloaders who mutter a perfunctory “thank you” after all the hours you put in. I talk about this in more detail in my essay Art for Money’s Sake.

3. If you want to give away stuff for free, make sure the recipient is worthy. Be selective. If that person has failed to appreciate you in the past, working harder isn’t going to magically change him or her. So don’t waste your time. Hold out for those who are truly appreciative.

Bottom line: It’s okay to be addicted to recognition. Most people are. Just learn to channel your need for recognition in the right direction so that you are creating for those people who most appreciate what you do, and who aren’t stingy. And don’t be afraid to combine your need for recognition with your ability to monetize it.

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