The “Passion Tax” – Why Artists and Creatives Are Exploited, And How To Say ‘No’

Featured image courtesy of The Cotton Bureau


“No.”

It’s quite possibly the most powerful word in any language, but using it can be equally as terrifying.

Saying ‘no’ means possibly offending people or downright pissing them off.

Saying ‘no’ means turning down opportunities (sometimes even good ones).

Saying ‘no’ means standing alone with our principles instead of fading into the crowd, “towing the line,” “sucking it up,” or “doing what we’re told.”

And saying ‘no’ means setting boundaries in a 21st century work-ourselves-to-death culture where those boundaries could be the difference between our own success versus the success of the people who instead always say “Yes” (often to their own detriment).

However, saying ‘no’ is also the only surefire path to maintaining any semblance of creative fulfillment, well-being, work-life balance, or sanity in the entertainment industry.

As I stated in the article Dear Hollywood: We Don’t Want to ‘Go Back to Normal.’ Normal Wasn’t Working,

If we don’t start having very difficult conversations about what needs to change in our industry, it’s only going to get exponentially worse.

Little did I know how quickly this would become the truth.

Over the last few weeks productions have slowly begun to open in various locations around the world which has led the few who are fortunate enough to have jobs to undercut their own value for the sake of simply being employed. Whether it’s little (or no) compensation for equipment rentals and working-from-home (WFH) expenses like internet, electricity, etc, or turnaround times and deadlines exponentially worse than before, or blurring the lines between work time and home time by giving away their nights and weekends for free because “We’re just lucky to have jobs right now!”, many of those who are setting the new status quo are unknowingly devaluing all of us in the process.

We all need to be abundantly clear on the following point: What we deem acceptable today despite our extenuating circumstances will become our new reality for years or even decades to come.

This is a reality I’m not willing to accept.

If we don’t put a stop to this practice soon…

If we don’t shift the cultural perception that having any work is worth the sacrifice right now (regardless of the cost)…

If we don’t collectively start saying “no” to the rapid deevolution of our well-being – all for the sake of creating content – the next phase of our post-pandemic reality will rapidly become a race to the bottom.

Here’s Why It’s So Easy to Take Advantage of Us

Hollywood is the land of dreams! It’s where the magic is made. It’s where the most compelling, engaging, and entertaining stories of our time are crafted. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the magic? Few of us when we were young spent every ounce of our free time with calculators pretending to be accountants, but countless numbers of us have defining memories of running around with video cameras shooting home movies because making movies and telling stories is in our DNA.

I’ll bet that, like me, at some point in your career you thought to yourself, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this!”

After all, “we’re just lucky to be here,” right?

Unfortunately the passion we have for our craft – while it might provide us with a certain level of fulfillment in the earlier stages of our career – is ultimately our undoing. Furthermore, the price we pay for devaluing our skills, our knowledge, and our time even has a name: The Passion Tax1. (credit to my spirit animal Adam Grant for coining this brilliant term.)

According to new research from Duke University2, our suspicions as creative professionals have been verified: We are taken advantage of because of the passion we have for our work.

Professor Aaron Kay found that:

People see it as more acceptable to make passionate employees do extra, unpaid, and more demeaning work than they would for employees without the same passion.

For example, “In one study, participants who read that an artist was strongly passionate about their job said it was more legitimate for the boss to exploit the artist than those who read the artist wasn’t as passionate. In another study, participants rated it more legitimate to exploit workers in jobs more traditionally associated with passion, such as an artist or social worker, than in jobs not generally seen as a labor of love, such as a store clerk or bill collector.”

Beyond our willingness to pay the “Passion Tax” in exchange for the opportunity to work on projects that fulfill us, we allow ourselves to be taken advantage of because we are literally addicted to pursuing success.

In the recent Atlantic article ‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy, the author Arthur Brooks argues that “The pursuit of meaningful achievement distracts from the deeply ordinary activities and relationships that make life meaningful.”

For many creative professionals (myself included), success has addictive properties. Praise literally stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine which is implicated in all addictive behaviors. As an editor I enjoy my job largely because of the collection of many small individual moments throughout the day where ideas come together. Every single edit that works, every single music cue that magically aligns with picture, every “happy accident” that makes me feel a certain emotion at its core is just another dopamine hit.

As creative professionals we are essentially chasing our next high, and we’re willing to achieve that high no matter the cost. As long as you keep providing compelling content, we’ll do whatever it takes to feel the rush of the next great moment we have the opportunity to help you create.

But as Arthur Brooks points out:

Success is Sisyphean. The goal can’t be satisfied; most people never feel ‘successful enough.’ The high only lasts a day or two, and then it’s on to the next goal. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which satisfaction wears off almost immediately and we must run on to the next reward.

And this hedonic treadmill is why:

  • We work nights and weekends without “bothering” to ask for OT
  • We plop our kids in front of the television to address last-minute notes that need to be finished ASAP!!!
  • We structure our lifestyles such that we literally can’t pay our basic monthly expenses without depending on our ‘Golden Time’
  • We plan our vacations around our jobs (versus planning our jobs around our much-needed vacation time)
  • We habitually answer emails, text messages, and Slack notifications during dinner, family events, and on weekends
  • We make excuses for missing once-in-a-lifetime events like birthdays, recitals, graduations, and even funerals

And this is ultimately why we perpetuate the devaluation of our craft every time we say ‘Yes’ to unreasonable demands or working below our standard rates.

I get it…setting boundaries is a bitch. Especially when ‘Yes’ is your default answer to everything.

You Might Even Be Wired to Say ‘Yes’

Beyond our willingness to keep paying ‘The Passion Tax’ in pursuit of success, many of us are literally wired to say ‘Yes’ to others and ‘No’ to ourselves.

One of the most transformational moments of my life happened over the course of a 90-minute keynote speech given by NYT bestselling author Gretchen Rubin where she introduced me to her concept The Four Tendencies. By the end of her speech I was able to make sense of decades of poor decisions, broken relationships, multiple recurrences of depression and burnout, and practically in the snap of a finger I understood the source of all the conflict in my marriage.

Unlike many personality profiles that put people into buckets or categories, Gretchen’s “Four Tendencies” are aptly NOT named as “types” but instead “tendencies” because they are only applicable and defined under the following circumstance: How you respond to expectations.

There are two types of expectations:

  1. External Expectations
  2. Internal Expectations

External expectations are expectations from others: Project deadlines, requests from your boss or spouse (or kids), appointments, outside commitments, etc.

Internal expectations are the expectations you hold (but rarely keep) yourself to: Your ideal weight, exercise habits, dietary choices, sleep patterns, quality of life for you and your family, the time in your life you should be protecting for yourself, the jobs you should take, the life you hope to lead, etc.

As the Venn diagram below exhibits, there are four basic tendencies based on our unique combination of how we meet internal & external expectations.

four tendencies diagram by Gretchen Rubin

The Four Tendencies are as follows:

THE OBLIGER

  • You readily meet outer expectations, meaning you bend over backwards to meet the demands of others, often to the point of ‘Obliger burnout’ where you simply cannot meet another request or demand without losing your mind.
  • You struggle to meet inner expectations, specifically self-care. You struggle to maintain healthy habits, and the only way you can maintain consistency with any routine is when someone else expects you to be somewhere.

THE QUESTIONER

  • You readily meet outer expectations…but only if the logic makes sense. You constantly question, “Is this the best way to do this?” often to the frustration of your team members (especially your boss). When the logic doesn’t make sense, you struggle to follow guidelines or meet deadlines.
  • You also readily meet inner expectations…but only if the logic makes sense. As a questioner you often fall prey to ‘analysis paralysis’ wondering if you’ve made the best choice possible, and you can deliberate to the point of procrastination and never taking action.

THE UPHOLDER

  • You readily meet both outer and inner expectations…often to a fault. You are seen as rigid or “anal” because you can’t roll with the punches when schedules change. You follow all guidelines and regulations (even when they make no logical sense). But conversely you can easily stick to a diet, an exercise routine, and show up to all appointments and commitments with ease (and all of us non-upholders hate you for it!!!).

THE REBEL

  • You struggle to meet both outer and inner expectations. You are less likely to complete a task or meet a deadline if someone expects it of you. You instead value your freedom to make your own choices on your own time. Conversely you find it equally difficult to meet your own internal expectations for the exact same reasons, causing constant inner conflict when you want to stick with habits.

So how do The Four Tendencies relate to setting boundaries and saying no to unrealistic expectations?

Guess which tendency is by far the most prevalent? Yup…Obligers, who comprise roughly 41% of the population (according to Gretchen’s anecdotal research and outreach).

If after reading the above tendencies you find yourself specifically relating to either the Obliger, the Questioner, or the Rebel, you struggle to meet internal expectations. Which means setting boundaries to protect your time, your energy, and your well-being is often a losing battle plagued by uncertainty, anxiety, and often outright terror.

But recognizing and understanding your tendency along with being aware of the Passion Tax you have been paying for years (or decades) to work in Hollywood at the expense of your well-being is the precursor to learning how to set boundaries and advocate for yourself and others.

Three Simple (But Not Easy) Steps To Set Boundaries, Advocate For Your Needs, and Say ‘No’ When You Know It’s the Right Answer

I’m an action-oriented kind of guy. I’m always doing my best to figure things out and find the “How To” solution to every problem.

It might seem obvious that the best way to advocate for your value, your time, and your well-being is to become a stronger person, or a louder person, or that you need to learn expert negotiation tactics. Or frankly just be more of an asshole (on a side note, please don’t do this).

But ultimately you can’t advocate for yourself and negotiate your worth until you actually know what you value the most in your life and have a clear picture of your goals.

In my coaching & mentorship program I have worked with over 100 creative professionals across the world at all stages of their careers to help them set boundaries around their time, their energy, and their creativity so they can pursue more meaningful career paths (without sacrificing their sanity in the process). I provide this service because I believe the only way our culture is going to change is by empowering one person at a time to advocate for themselves.

If you are waiting for some new union rules or workplace regulations to magically protect you from ridiculous deadlines and unrealistic expectations, I have bad news for you: Many of those rules & regulations already exist. The reason they aren’t enforced (and are regularly exploited) is because the vast majority of us do not possess the confidence or the communication skills to say ‘no’ when we need to the most.

If saying ‘no’ is the key to you becoming healthier, more productive, and more successful, in other words:

  • Saying ‘no’ to the unpaid OT, you know, because “there isn’t a budget for it”
  • Saying ‘no’ to the chronically late nights and long weekends (even if you are paid)
  • Saying ‘no’ to another night of free pizza at the expense of you staying at your desk for the evening
  • Saying ‘no’ to the endless requests and busy-work when what you really need to be working on is deep creative work
  • Saying ‘no’ to missing a necessary doctor appointment because your call time was pushed

If having the confidence to say ‘no’ to all of the above and more is a version of yourself you’d like to make a reality, here’s where I suggest you begin.

1. Start asking better questions

The quality of your life is largely dictated by the quality of the questions you ask yourself. For example, if you find yourself constantly burned out and feeling like your time, your expertise, and your good nature are being exploited, these might be familiar questions ruminating in your mind:

  • What will it take just to survive until the end of the day today?
  • Why do I dread my job so much?
  • Is working on this project even worth it?
  • Is this really what I want to be doing with my life?

And the most likely question of all:

  • What am I willing to put up with in exchange for this paycheck?

While it isn’t easy, the strategy to help you summon the courage to say no to unreasonable expectations and the wrong opportunities is simple: Flip the script and start asking yourself better questions.

Instead of asking, “How much extra money will I make this week with all this OT?”

Ask yourself, “What is the cost of working these hours?”

Sure you might get a fat paycheck for a 90 hour week, but there is a HUGE cost you have to pay to receive that money which includes poor health, strained relationships, and time you’ll never get back with your family.

Instead of asking, “How much will I gain?”

Ask yourself, “How much will I lose?”

As I discussed with producer Janace Tashjian, if you are a department leader,

Instead of asking, “What can we do to not fail?”

Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to make sure everyone on my team has what they need to succeed?”

If you’re interested in investing in new skills, building a new business to free yourself from your golden handcuffs, or making a major transition in your career,

Instead of asking, “How much will it cost me to learn and grow?”

Ask yourself, “How much will it cost me to stay in the same place?”

Reframing my perspective and asking one simple question of myself five years ago has dictated the complete transformation of my life & career. Five years ago after chronically putting my kids to bed via FaceTime while editing season 1 of Empire, I asked myself the following question:

What about my life has to change such that I can put my kids to bed in person (almost) every night?

That started a domino effect that led to multiple fundamental changes in the way I structured my time, my life, and how I pursued projects (and which jobs I turned down).

So…what is the first question you need to ask yourself but have been afraid to? And does the answer to that question clarify what in your life needs to transform from a ‘yes’ to a ‘no’?

2. Clearly define your ‘Creative Needs’ and your ‘Lifestyle Needs’ 

It’s going to be difficult to set boundaries and advocate for yourself if you have no idea what you need to protect. If survival is your only priority, and getting the next paycheck is your only goal, it’s pretty easy to chronically say yes to unreasonable requests despite the consequences to your well-being.

To be clear: For some people the paycheck is literally about survival. I pass no judgment at people who put themselves through hell and make sacrifices to support themselves and/or their family. But for most the paycheck has become an excuse to continue suffering while also avoiding the fear and uncertainty that comes with pursuing a more fulfilling path.

As I state in my article The Four Types of Creative Jobs (and The Secret To Knowing Which Is the Perfect Fit For You),

Success rarely has a defined path. What if simply understanding where your current job fits into your own unique career path completely changed the way you approach your duties day-to-day and you suddenly had 100% confidence that this was the exact path leading to your dream job?

Not until you have a clear understanding of whether or not your current job fulfills your ‘Creative Needs’ and your ‘Lifestyle Needs’ will you be able to set boundaries and protect everything that diverts your attention away from moving your career forwards (on your terms).

Your ‘Creative Needs’ are the stories you want to tell.

Ask yourself, “What do I watch already? And would I be happy being on the team that makes the shows & films I already watch?”

When I first watched Season 1 of Cobra Kai I instantly knew the show was made for me. Thematically it was so aligned with the stories I wanted to tell, it was the perfect fit for my hard skills as an editor, and most importantly The Karate Kid was the transformational film of my youth. Pursuing that project was a NO. BRAINER. But for others this show might not be the right fit at all to meet their ‘Creative Needs.’

For example, another show I’m obsessed with is The Office, but if it were still on TV I’d have no interest in cutting it because it doesn’t align with the kind of work I want to do – it’s a brilliant show but not my editorial style. Therefore while it would be a cool opportunity, for me I wouldn’t find it fulfilling. So as crazy as it sounds, working on The Office would be a ‘no’ for me (unless my lifestyle needs were met in spades such that it became a “Lifestyle Job”).

What genres, themes, and styles fulfill you? Only after you identify them will you better understand the sacrifices you’re willing to make to pursue your dream projects, and more importantly only then can you identify what opportunities require either a ‘Yes,’ or more likely a ‘No.’

Your ‘Lifestyle Needs’ are the non-negotiables when it comes to how you live your life while on the job.

My biggest fear when I discovered Cobra Kai was that it was a cool show but would be a horrible experience from a lifestyle perspective. At this point in my career, as I stated above, I’m unwilling to live at the office such that I never see my family. If I can’t put my kids to bed in person more often than not, I immediately pass.

So when I went to my interview with the creators of the show I interviewed them. I asked numerous questions to better understand their workflow and their expectations such that if they wanted me around 16 hours a day or on weekends, no matter how creatively fulfilling the experience would be, my well-being would be destroyed. Luckily the show has been a lifestyle dream (outside of a crappy commute). Therefore it was an easy ‘Yes.’

Had the show not met my lifestyle needs, as scary as it may have felt at the time, Cobra Kai would have been a hard pass.

3. Embrace the fear of the unknown (and be willing to delay gratification)

I understand how terrifying the idea of saying ‘No’ to a paycheck is, especially during a pandemic, but unless you financially have no other choice, the cost of saying ‘yes’ to an opportunity that will take advantage of you, or that doesn’t align with your needs, is ultimately much higher than the value you receive in return. And this generates significant amounts of fear.

Whenever you are confronted with any opportunity, whether it’s something as significant as a new gig or a raise to stay at the same company, or conversely something as insignificant as a simple request from a superior or being asked to work extra hours, pay attention to your immediate emotional reaction and ask this question:

Is what I’m feeling at this moment anxiety? Or is it nerves?

If the request creates a giant rock in your stomach, causes you to sweat, or you’re losing sleep over reluctantly saying ‘yes,’ more than likely you are experiencing anxiety and you need to say ‘no’ and run for the hills. What you are being asked is not good for your well-being, even if on the surface it provides immediate gratification or money in the bank.

On the other hand if you experience intense nerves, you need to lean into this as much as possible. Nerves come about from fear of the unknown, but that nervousness is telling you something scary is coming, and if you confront it could be good for you (or change your entire life). This epitomizes every single ninja training session I’ve done for the last two and a half years since I decided to go From ‘Dad Bod’ to American Ninja Warrior. When I step up to an obstacle there is always fear, and there are always nerves, but I know at the other end of that obstacle is growth.

The Stanford Marshmallow experiment is a famous study from 1972 whereby researchers studied the effects of delayed gratification by asking a child whether they would be interested in having one marshmallow now or if they’d be willing to wait fifteen minutes and have two marshmallows. After following up with those same children decades later, the conclusion was clear: Those who are willing to delay gratification become more successful (as exhibited by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures).

As tempting as it might be to ignore the fear that comes from saying ‘no’ to any immediate opportunity that comes your way, even if it pays less than usual, or you feel you might be taken advantage of, long-term your chances of success are higher if you practice delayed gratification and wait for a better opportunity.

As editor James Wilcox states about his career path to the top:

Don’t always expect your payoff to come from the place you’re investing it. Sometimes things pay off down the line. You got to keep grinding, you got to keep believing, and you got to keep preparing, no matter what, because it’s going to happen.

Saying ‘Yes’ No Matter What Has Serious Consequences For All Of Us In a Post-Pandemic World

If we continue down the path where we devalue each other for the sake of any paycheck possible, if we continue to preach the gospel that “We’re just lucky to be working right now!” the ripple effect to our lifestyles (and bank accounts) will be catastrophic for decades to come.

We’re already trending towards working more hours for less money (with zero boundaries between working from home and being home), and things are only going to get exponentially worse as more projects become available and the feeding frenzy for jobs continues.

This isn’t a fight against the big, bad studios. This isn’t a fight for (or against) the unions. And this isn’t a fight against the mega corporations and “Big Business.”

This is a fight against ourselves.

We can either collectively choose to make this a climb to the top or a race to the bottom.

I know which direction I’m choosing. Do you?

If you’re tired of the work-ourselves-to-death culture in the entertainment industry, click here to support more humane working hours in Hollywood.

If you’d like to learn more about how to set your own boundaries and forge a new path in your career, click here to get on the waitlist for my coaching & mentorship program.


Continue to Listen & Learn:

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, and the creator of the Optimize Yourself program. He helps ambitious creative professionals and entrepreneurs DO better and BE better. “Doing” better means learning how to more effectively manage your time, your energy, and your creativity so you can produce higher quality work in less time (and ultimately become a productivity ninja). “Being” better means doing all of the above while still prioritizing the most important people, things, and passions in your life…all without sacrificing your health (or sanity) in the process. Click to download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”