Pulling (but) your own weight

This time I want to write about pulling one’s own weight. I am on my way to New York, so I will keep it brief. When one is young and just entered the world of photography one has to take some serious decisions about collaborations, projects, and assisting other people. Often (not always though) one ends up doing the majority of the work getting little to no credit and I want to talk a bit about this.

So why does this happen over and over again that one finds oneself exploited after a ‘collaboration’ and one feels that one has done the lion share (if not all) of the work and the other, often due to seniority, is getting all the credit? The expression pulling your own weight means to work as hard in a group as everybody else. In order protect yourself from exploitation I would even go a step further: do not work harder.

Pull your own weight and only your own weight.

How does it come anyways that some people work harder than others? If we would have expected this right from the beginning, we might not have hooked up with those people. The problem is, as a rule of thumb, an expert slacker and exploiter will give you the impression that he or she is the hardest working person on the planet and everybody else is slacking. This sets a very subtle and dangerous stage: you do not want to disappoint the other person as he or she made (seemingly) quite some bad experiences in the past. You suddenly develop the idea that you need to pay forward. To make the mix really explosive the other person, maybe more experienced and senior, might not need the success as much as you do (or at least that is what you think) and hence you tend to pick up the slack. In the beginning of this dangerous process one often does not even realize what is going on as the self-assessment roughly goes like this: “I have contributed more than the other. This is great! She/He can never think of me as a slacker and I will keep being one step ahead of her/him.” The issue is that the more you do the more the other person will fall behind making you work more. At some point, you realize that you invested so much time: you better make it a success. This is very dangerous and how it blows up, and of course, you incur the greatest damage.

Seal-off and decontaminate. That is probably one of my favorite principles for self-protection. It is extremely powerful. Set up things in such a way that in case of an emergency, you can ‘seal-off’ your own investment and ‘decontaminate’ the environment from the slackers. How can you implement this? Very simple: for everything that you agree to or sign-off, ask yourself: ‘am I hand-cuffed to this person and will go down with him/her?’ If the answer is yes, your setup is not stable. Of course it is not always easy to implement but often you can hedge a significant risk. For example, if you work with a second shooter on a wedding, before she/he leaves the venue, have her/him give you the cards and copy the to your own machine. Now, you are a lot safer: you can develop the shots yourselfs. The same principle applies to risk management in general. Only hire ‘independent contractors’ when you are setting up your shop – never ’employees’. This protects you from liability issues. Once you are a more stable entity/company/business you might change.

The stronget motivator: opportunity cost. What keeps you in this unhealthy relationships of exploitation is also what can easily get you out of it: cost. In this equilibrium essentially two things are working against each other. One is the sunk cost, when you have invested a lot of time and you contemplate to get out of this relationship your time investment becomes a sunk cost. It is gone. And you won’t get it back. On the other hand, we have the opportunity cost, the cost you incurred by not doing something better, more rewarding with your time. Maybe you could have found a different partner to work with that would have gotten you slightly less cash/prestige/reward but would have been more reliable. It is important to understand this trade-off and learn to act on it: one gets stuck because the cost are not carefully balanced against each other. It is a simple miscalibration. In economocis this probem is well understood as the stop-loss problem or stopping problem. As a practical rule of thumb that protects yourself: as soon as you feel uncomfortable with how things do, start paying attention and if there is a consistent pattern, immediately stop pulling any extra weight and sit it out. Either the person will pick up the slack and actually start pulling some weight or your collaboration will crash. The latter is fine as well because the freed up time that you had from not pulling additional weight you can invest early into other projects. Moreover, a well sealed-off investment is pretty robust: it is all about damage control.

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