The lecture I gave yesterday was a blast.
But something bothered me.
When a ‘friend’ approached me asking if I knew any UCLA professor who could do a lecture on storytelling for some Chinese students (aged 14 to 16). I volunteered, “What about me? I’ve TA-ed screenwriting at UCLA, giving a 10-week lecture series for the undergrads. I work at a Hollywood producer’s production company. Just a while ago, some Shanghai newspaper interviewed me about my Hollywood journey.”
Oftentimes I listed those things to make up for my lack of real writing credits. She agreed and added that they would pay for my service.
So I started working on the keynote deck. I mentioned in passing to my Chinese writer friend about this gig. She said, “Have you talked about how much exactly they would pay you?” I shrugged. “Then you need to ask her now. Better get it cleared now than later.”
My friend was right.
I was afraid to lose the gig if I seemed too ‘greedy.’
There the haggling began. It was unpleasant. She gave me a bunch of reasons just so she could avoid bringing it up to her boss.
In the end, she replied:
“$$$ is the max we can offer. Otherwise, we will have to ask the colleague of ours who graduated from Harvard to do it instead.”
I was pissed. If you just want to pay chicken shit, why bother asking in the first place? Because your staff, Harvard or not, can do it for free.
The word ‘Harvard’ got on my nerves, too.
As if you spend four years in Harvard, you come out invincible and incredible.
As if you get a free pass for life.
As if you understand any subject and can solve every problem on the face of the Earth.
What troubled me most was the woman held a Ph.D in Education. That’s what they taught you at USC? That’s what education means to you? Harvard or nothing?
Then and there, I decided to deliver a kick-ass keynote to show them why I was worth $$$$ for the two-hour lecture.
I think I made my point yesterday when the big boss approached me, giving me his card, asking, “You’re really good at giving lectures. How long have you been doing this? Let’s grab dinner soon!” He then gave me the envelop that contained my fee.
$$$. No more, no less.
I left and went on about my own business. The woman didn’t contact me for our unfinished business. By 5pm, I texted her regarding my Lyft ride in the morning—stuff we’d confirmed during the haggling phase. Tucking away my ego, I sent her the screenshot of the receipt. She PayPaled me back $6.17. The lecture boosted my self-worth. But this act chipped some bits away. I felt like a beggar. But every cent counts for my current situation—unemployed foreign student. And she knew it.
Maybe that’s the experience being a freelancer. Until you’re red hot in demand, there is always a gap between what you’re worth and what you get paid. You’ll have to remind them to reimburse your next six bucks and convince yourself that it does nothing to your dignity and it doesn’t mean they don’t respect your service, and you.
This is what I’ve learned and what I’ve internalized:
I just have to keep at it till I can call my own shots.
And I will outlast ’em all.
PS. Imagine if I did recommend my screenwriting professor to them. What damage would that do to my relationship with my professor?