I’ve been lucky so far to have a varied career. I started off as a CPA for PwC auditing large banks during the financial crisis (super interesting, incredibly exhausting). I went to business school at Duke to broaden my skillset and take me in a different direction (and teach me what it means to feel overloaded with student loans). I worked in marketing at P&G, one of the most established consumer marketing companies in the world. I started a business with a friend renting bridesmaid dresses. I moved to London and started freelance marketing for TV personalities (yes, plural). I write for Forbes, The Everygirl, and a whole host of other places about money, negotiating, and women. And now I teach courses and workshops on money and negotiation, designed specifically for women.
When I look at the highlight reel of my career and life so far, it’s easy for me to forget what actually went into taking me all of these new places. It’s easy to gloss over the details and forget the doubt, hard lessons, and cringe-worthy moments. And there were plenty of hard lessons and cringe-worthy moments that I can look back and laugh about (mostly).
As I look at these moments, both the high points and the low points, I know this:
All of the good things that happened, happened because I asked for them. All of the bad things that happened, happened because I didn’t ask for good things to happen.
I know, not super deep. But completely true. And it was with that realization that I started The Worth Project. Because I truly believe that if you learn how to master asking for what you need with confidence everything else gets a whole lot easier.
Here are 5 lessons that I’ve learned that have helped me shape my career, my financial future, and The Worth Project.
1. Everyone has the same core needs
Like most people, I have different groups of friends. I have my college friends, my early-adulting career friends, my business school friends, and my expat friends. What has always struck me about these groups of friends is that they couldn’t be more different. The careers they have, where they choose to live, and what they choose to do in their down time is different.
But because I’m your weird friend that loves talking about money and career paths, I’ve had numerous in depth conversations about this with all of these different people.
What has struck me about these very, very different personalities, is that they all want the same things: they want to be financially secure so they can make choices in life (whatever that means to them), they want to be valued, and they want to feel like they have a voice. Whether they prioritize career, family, fun, or personal development, it doesn’t matter. This is what they want and need.
In knowing that I focus everything on here to help people be more financially secure, feel valued, and have a voice. To me, all three things are interrelated.
2. I’ve learned what happens when you speak up
Two years into my first post-college job I was sitting in my partner’s office for my annual review. He’d just told me I’d earned an early promotion and the pay raise I wanted. While a lot of the details of the conversation are fuzzy, I remember one thing he said to me very clearly:
“I’m not often wrong about people, but I was wrong about you. You went from being my least favorite person to my favorite. Last year I would’ve said you’d never make it. Now I have no doubt in how far you’ll go.”
What struck me was that I hadn’t changed that year. I was the same person. I had the same work ethic. I worked just as many hours. And I was just as smart (or not smart) as I was the year before.
The only thing that changed was that I decided to begin confidently asking for things. I wanted to work on certain clients, I wanted certain experiences, and I made it clear that I was determined to get a promotion and a raise. Asking for things changed the course of my 5 years with that company, and likely changed the course of my career.
Asking for things – strategically – didn’t end there. While I didn’t stay on that career path, I asked for the opportunities I needed to shift the trajectory of my career (see why I believe in a career lattice, rather than a career path). I’ve asked for more money, I’ve negotiated new rates with clients, and I’ve asked for different flexible schedules so that I could make work fit in better with my life.
3. I’ve learned what happens when you don’t
Two years ago I landed myself in the hospital with a panic attack after being completely burnt out from work. I have no history of anxiety and I’ve had plenty of stressful jobs in my life. While there were a number of things that contributed to this situation, a big one was that I didn’t speak up.
I hate talking about this time in my career. I’m not proud of getting into this situation and I’m also not proud of how I acted. But as much as I want to sweep this part of my life under a rug and ignore it, I can’t because it taught me so much.
We moved to London in 2014 and I set out to find a job. I was still nearly $100k in student loan debt and desperate to get out. After 6+ long months searching for a job, I finally found a job. I knew the company had a reputation for being a difficult place to work (you either love it or hate it, there’s very little in between), but I felt desperate. On the first day, I remember being intimidated by the strong personalities in the room and I felt myself shrink back into a corner.
For months I hated my job. I didn’t believe in the project I was working on and I didn’t know how to voice that. Then, the travel started. When I took the job I specifically asked if I’d be required to travel and made it clear that I was looking for a job that would keep me in London. I was only going to be living in London for a short amount of time and I actually wanted to experience living in this city. Unfortunately, I ended up flying all over the world every week for a job that I really didn’t enjoy.
But, I still didn’t speak up.
While there were other reasons why my time there ended (I wrote about this in DailyWorth, which you can find here), when the dust settled I saw that I had more control than I realized at the time. If I deeply hated the project I was on or the travel was too much for me, I could have spoken up. I could have started a conversation about what I needed in order to be the best employee for them.
But I didn’t. I stayed quiet. While I don’t think that speaking up would have changed my eventual outcome of quitting, I do think it could’ve made things more bearable.
Looking back now it seems so silly to me that I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.
4. Being financially secure gives you choices
I’m not crazy about coupons, I don’t like to track my budget each month, and I really love international travel. Those are all reasons why when I started The Worth Project I didn’t want to talk about personal finance. Everything I had read was either telling me that my spending choices were horrible or it was making it so incredibly complicated that it felt overwhelming.
But I’ve always appreciated that being financially secure has given me choices. When I wasn’t financially secure I had far fewer choices. I didn’t know how to leave a bad job, I didn’t know how much my work was really worth. And I distinctly remember crying on the street one evening when I really wanted a burrito, but somehow didn’t have enough cash in my account to get one.
Financial security is different for everyone. For me it means that I have some money in the bank, I know how much my work is worth, I know I can make more if I need to (<-BIG one), and though I’m no Warren Buffett, I know what to do with my money each month.
I like talking about money, not because I get some high from seeing how much I can save each month (ok, sometimes I do), but because I see that without financial security, no one will ever feel safe to take the big risks and pursue the things that will make their life great.
So when I talk about money on the worth project, I try to talk about it with that lens: money isn’t scary and if you can master some of the basics and feel financially secure then a lot more doors will open in your life.
5. You can only start where you are
When I abruptly found myself without a job I panicked. How would I finish paying off my student loans? What does this mean for my career? I have a tendency to over-plan and overthink everything.
As I tried to overthink my situation, I had a friend say to me, “Just start where you are.
Um ok, sure. What does that even mean? I brushed it off as fluff. I needed answers. I needed money. I needed to do something.
When I decided to take on freelance marketing clients to help pay the bills, I was overwhelmed. Again, I thought ten steps ahead and before even signing my first client I was questioning how far this could go or whether this was a sustainable career for me. It was then that I remembered my friend’s advice of, “Just start where you are”. This time it clicked.
I reached out to my first prospective client after seeing her on a TV show and thinking that I could help her. My pitch was less than perfect, I designed a very hot pink powerpoint deck (so not me), and my fees were less than what I had been making at my job. But, it’s where I was right then.
It worked, I signed my first client and went on from there.
When The Everygirl offered me a spot as a finance editor on their team I was terrified. I am not a writer. I’m a math nerd who likes money. I’m a boring CPA with a stuffy MBA. I thought there was no way I’d ever succeed with it. But I started where I was, improved each time, and loved the experience.
Similarly, when Forbes asked if I’d take on a series where I interviewed women about their salary, I was so nervous I literally wanted to throw up. Tens of thousands of people would read my writing. The first time I pushed publish my hand was actually shaking. I’m not a writer. How can I write for Forbes? But a year later, I’m so thankful for where it has taken me.
I’ve realized that all the best things in my life, career, and even my finances have happened because I didn’t over-plan and I was patient. I just started where I was, and I improved each day.
While I don’t know where The Worth Project will go, I’m starting where I am each day. I know that I love teaching courses and workshops on negotiation and confidently asking for what you need because I see the difference it makes in people’s lives. I like writing about money, careers, and knowing your worth and have so much more to say about how to think about and handle your money. And I hope to do more, be more, and reach more people every single day through articles, videos, webinars, and workshops.
THE LATEST & GREATEST
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Erica Gellerman, CPA
Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project: a weekly money newsletter you actually want to read. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom, and Lifehacker. When she's not writing about personal finance you can find Erica exploring Europe from her temporary home base in London.