This is a guest post written by Stephie from Tea In Your Twenties.

trusting and valuing yourself in the early years of your career

Choosing a career is never an easy task. Actually getting started in said career can be even harder.

To start with, career paths aren’t as linear as they once were. In the 5 years since I’ve left uni, not a single one of my friends have stayed in one job and “worked their way up.” Nowadays, people seem to be taking a lot more time with their careers, and a side step can be seen just as important as an upward one, if you come away having learnt something new.

And if you haven’t left school yet, spoiler alert, your education doesn’t finish with a qualification.

In fact the “learning process” can be the single hardest thing to navigate when you’re starting your career.

If you’re reading A Branch of Holly, no doubt you’re career driven, motivated and a bit of a go getter. You're the type of person who will go beyond that extra mile to get to where you want to be. You either already love your job, or you’re working on getting one that you will. You’ll be looking to get as much experience as possible. Because experience is invaluable, right?

When I left uni, I jumped at an internship, which only covered my travel expenses, because it was worth it. When I first decided to work freelance I did some gigs for free, because it was worth it. I worked 7 days a week at 3 different jobs because it was worth it. I worked Christmas Day because it was worth it. I missed seeing friends because it was worth it. I gave up buying new clothes because it was worth it. 

And it went on like this for 3 years. Because one day it would be worth it.

But gaining all that invaluable working experience did come at a cost to me. A cost that didn’t show up on my bank balance (although I guess you could say working for free or on minimum wage, did show up on my bank balance, if you looked really really closely at that tiny number). Gaining invaluable experience cost me in other ways.

It cost me my social life. It came at the expense of losing hours of sleep. It took a direct debit out of my health. And it cost me my self-confidence, which was a number that dipped in out of the red far too many times for my liking.

So my question is: have we started to value experience more than we value ourselves? And is that really the best way to get the career we love and deserve?

In all honesty? I’m not so sure. 

In the long run, all that work I put in gaining experience paid off, so I can't deny that in someways it was invaluable. But I didn’t start to reap the benefits until I started valuing myself.

In this day and age, where it seems everyone wants to follow their dream, it’s easy to feel like you never have enough experience. It also doesn’t help that our economy still relies quite heavily on a fresh supply of new people willing to put in work for free. And that’s not just students, that’s people of all ages, going above and beyond the hours they’ve been paid for.

When an amazing opportunity comes along, to network, or to gain experience, or to put your name out there, it seems so easy to say you’ll do it for free, because we all live in fear that if you don’t say yes to that, then somebody else will.

However, always saying you’ll do things for free might not be giving yourself the best reputation. It also says that you see yourself as under-qualified. It says you don’t value your skills enough. And if you don’t value your skills why should anybody else?

About a year after I went freelance, I’d started gaining a bit of traction in my career. Back then I was focusing on being a storyteller, creating special events for children’s at art festivals. People enjoyed my work, and after one packed summer of working for little or no money, offers for other work, that was paid, started to come in.

Granted sometimes that pay was only covering my expenses, or it only covered the hours I was actually on site for, and not the hours I’d spent preparing the work. But it was payment. It said, "we value your skills in a way that society understands."

I was busy booking work for my second summer, when an offer for an event came through. The organiser had heard of my work through several people, and had friends who had seen me at other events and told her how much their children had enjoyed it. This wasn’t a cold call, this was someone who knew I was good. She wasn’t taking a chance on me, she knew what she was getting and she knew it would be good. She explained what the event was, what she was looking for, and I gave her several options of activities I could run, and I also gave her my prices. Prices which were still very modest, but I felt confident charging, especially to somebody who had already been given a glowing report of my work.

I sent off my email and waited to confirm dates, but her reply was this:

‘I’m sorry but we don’t have any budget to pay for you, as this is a charity event, and I’ve already bought a giant jenga set.’

At first I heard the words charity, thought about the size of the event, and all the people that I might meet and rushed to type ‘Oh ok, I’ll do it for free’.  Then I reread her reply.

‘I’ve already bought a giant jenga set.’

What this email really said was, ‘I value your skills and work less than I value giant blocks of foam.’ Even though she’d heard glowing reports of me, despite the fact that I was willing to create something completely bespoke for her, something that would have cost me in materials and time way beyond the modest fee I’d quoted her, she was more willing to pay for an inanimate object than she was for me.

Perhaps she didn’t understand the work I was offering. Maybe she only saw the surface level of what I was offering and not the hours of behind-the-scenes preparation that would happen. Or maybe like so so so many people, she thought I was young, and I was doing something I loved so I would be willing to do it for free.

But unfortunately, being young, doesn’t mean I get my rent and food and life for free, and loving my job doesn’t pay the bills.

It was then that I realised, sometimes you have to say no to work and opportunities. Sometimes you have to value yourself because you can’t always rely on other people to do it for you.

Experience is invaluable. But sometime that experience comes from saying no. It comes from working out your own values, and trusting your own instincts.

If something doesn’t feel right, say no. If something sounds too good to be true say no, and if you think you should be paid for something and they're not willing to write the cheque, say no.

There’s no denying that we all have to pay our dues, and no doubt in the future an opportunity will come along and maybe I will be willing to lower my rate for it, because it will be worth it in the end.

Just don’ t confuse something that will be worth it with something that might make you feel worthless.

And if you’re finding that difficult here are the four things I check in with myself before saying yes to something that seems like an opportunity, but might just be a wolf in sheep's clothing:

  1. What is the opportunity? Is it something I’ve done before and I’m more than capable of doing or is it something that I’m asking them to take a chance on me for?
  2. Can they afford to pay me? Are they paying for someone or something else that I am equal to? Don’t be a jenga block!
  3. Is it crazy? Does something seem unprofessional? Have they said something that makes you think ‘hang on, that’s not right.’ This is a big one for me, my mantra is ‘I don’t do crazy’
  4. Does it fit in with me, my values and what I want? Maybe you want to do some charity work for free, maybe it is an organisation you’re invested in helping get off the ground, or maybe there is something very specific you want to get out of it. It is ok to do voluntary work or work for free, by all means, as long as you can be very specific about the reason why.

As I said earlier, navigating your career and learning experiences isn’t an easy task, and things won’t always go to plan. But if there is one thing I’ve learnt, in the five years since I’ve graduated it's that nothing good comes from undervaluing yourself.

Experience is invaluable, but so is your self confidence!


Do you have any ‘experience’ horror stories? Or ways you check in with yourself? I’d love to hear them in the comments or you can tweet me at @teacuptheatre.

stephie - tea in your twenties

Stephie is a creative lifestyle blogger who blogs over at She has worked in the art sector since leaving university. Her current official job title is Community Engagement Co-Ordinator and Programmer, but all that really means is that she makes stuff (mainly theatre) happen.

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