Dangerous Ideas: “Paying Your Dues” is Underrated

A recent post at the Employee Evolution blog asks the following question: “Is ‘paying your dues’ an outdated concept?”

The author opens with the story of his time in his high school drama club. For three years he paid his dues — practicing his singing, showing up at every meeting, taking on tedious parts — so that, as a senior, he could reap his triumphant reward in the form of a leading role in the yearly drama production.

But things didn’t go as planned. A new choral director was hired and gave all the choice parts to the younger students he already knew. In short, the author got screwed.

His lesson:

It did teach me one thing that I haven’t forgotten — to be extremely skeptical of people who tell you to pay your dues. You can do everything right, and still get passed by.

The author then extends this logic to the workplace. In his calculus, older employees grumble about us hotshot Gen-Y’ers not wanting to “pay our dues,” while we feel justified in our hot-shotedness because we’ve seen our parent’s generation be rewarded for years of service with a pink slip.

This is a confusing stalemate. On the one hand, young people are not content to put in time for the sake of putting in time — just because that’s the payment owed some antiquated seniority system. On the other hand, the older folks aren’t far off the mark by retorting that it’s hubristic to expect benefits immediately.

So what’s a modern workforce to do? The author’s conclusion:

I’m not advocating that Gen-Y employees should all be given high-level jobs, months of vacation time and great salaries the moment they set foot in the door. Experience matters…But I think we do need to feel like we’re in an environment where we can learn, achieve our goals and be happy.

I’m not quite sure what this means (it smacks of business-speak to me). But I suspect that me and this author are actually working from the same page here. Despite the provocative statements made earlier in his post, I think we both see some value in the “paying dues” concept — value, that is, if you are willing to rething your definition of “dues.”

Redefining Dues

A careful analysis of the dues argument reveals two separate components. One is the inadequacy of seniority (as oppose to skill-based) benefit ladders. The other is the indulgent lunacy in coddling young hires in whatever benefits or opportunities satisfies their ego-bolstering whims. We can solve both (says Cal, with completely unjustified confidence). Here’s how:

  1. Maintain the core concept that in order to obtain a certain benefit (be it more responsibility, more pay, or increased schedule flexibility) an employee most “pay his dues” in a well-defined manner.
  2. Redefine what it means to “pay dues” to a system that is completely independent of seniority. Instead, make it based on the achievement of specific performance benchmarks.

If you’re twenty-two, and you want to be given your own project team to manage, fine. Just show us three previous projects in which your manager allowed you to run the main technical meetings and your fellow team-members gave you a rating of “excellent” or above on their post-project evaluations.

You want flexible work hours? Great. Take on a stretch project the company has been meaning to get done. If over the period of a month your managers report no problems in your normal workload and you get the stretch project done, then we deem you productive enough to handle more flexibility.

Barriers are fine so long as the path to circumvention is well-known and well-justified.

The Power of the Dues Paying Mindset

This whole discussion leads to a larger point that holds, perhaps, more salience to my non-working student audience. A willingness—perhaps even eagerness—to “pay your dues” in the non-seniority, performance-driven manner described above, is a crucial trait to aid the accomplishment of big things.

Almost anything that is worth doing is worth doing because its considered impressive or valuable. It’s likely considered impressive or valuable because not many people do it. Not many people do it because it’s hard.

If you want to accomplish the types of things that impress people, then you must get used to aggressively putting in the prerequisite work to get to the ability level you need to be at. This holds if you’re a new hire in the workplace or a student involved in an undergraduate research program. It’s equally relevant to a wannabe entrepreneur as it is to a fledgling author.

See the World in Terms of Dues

Dues paying is where you differentiate yourself from the masses. Regardless of the pursuit, first ask yourself: “What specific thing could I achieve that would prove me capable/deserving of making progress in this pursuit.” Then set about to find the most efficient possible path to this achieving this specific thing. Don’t worry about the ultimate goal. Just worry about the next set of dues you need to conquer en route to completion.

When you enter the workforce for the first time, your first thought should not be to complain about how your bosses are under-appreciating you. Instead, identify what specific thing you could accomplish that would indisputably qualify you as worthy of increased appreciation.

Let’s take a more collegiate example. You join a campus magazine and are frustrated that the editors won’t give you more important positions or let you tackle the bigger features. Don’t complain that you can write just as well as they can. Instead, resolve to turn in a steady stream of articles, over the next few semesters, that will unequivocally establish you as a top writer worthy of the extra responsibility.

What happens if you fail? What if your business project flounders? Or, your magazine articles fall flat? In this case, you’re not yet deserving of the benefit. That’s what makes the “dues paying” mindset so effective — it injects meritocracy back into the process.

In Conclusion

In the final accounting, I, like many young people, bristle when I hear old commentators describe our generation as spoiled and wanting everything without doing any work. On the other hand, I also bristle when I hear young commentators drivel on about the kid gloves with which Gen-Y’ers in the workplace should be handled.

My final solution: Ignore this jabber. All of it. See the world in terms of your own system of dues and start paying as soon as possible. The benefits will come.

3 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: “Paying Your Dues” is Underrated”

  1. I cannot believe this post has only generated one comment in over 7 years… I’m also surprised this concept was not included in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I suppose it’s in the realm of deliberate practice, but when it comes to defining deliberate practice in a workplace setting, perhaps “paying your dues” (at whatever level you happen to be) is a good term for it.

    I think part of the problem is that there is so much information out there these days, that it’s easy to get into a mindset of “I already know (how to do) that.” I took a class on it in college, I read a book about it, my (relationship to me) did that for years and I know everything about it… It’s one thing to read or talk about something and understand it or know it on an intellectual level, and another to put it into practice, and yet another to practice it enough to become really good at it and build that foundation before moving to the next level. The younger generation’s sense of entitlement comes from their vast knowledge, but the older generation’s insistence on paying dues comes from their extensive experience.

    That being said, the workplace is rarely a meritocracy. If you can find a way to “hack” the system more power to you – just remember that one day the people below you and around you will resent you (and sometimes hate you) for the fact they have to spend their time training you on something you should already know well enough to teach them.


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