The John Hughes Theory of Why We're Under Earning

I was recently reading Brat Pack America, the latest book by Kevin Smokler which revisits teen movies of the 1980s and examines them with the careful consideration of an anthropologist and historian, weighing the stories and their geographical context with eyes that have watched 30 years of film unfold beyond them. It’s fascinating, and such a delight to dive back into the pop culture soup where I marinated as a teen and tween. It’s had me time traveling back to those tender years and sparked an unexpected insight in the work that I do now to help hardworking artists with their money.

As someone who eagerly watched John Hughes movies first in the theater, and then repeatedly at slumber parties, I’ll admit that I took those stories literally. I didn't question anything, I just watched, absorbed — and to my 12-year old eyes those dramas were more like documentaries, preparing kids for the realities of life a few years down the road.

Yes, John Hughes taught me that well-to-do high school kids wear expensive, pastel, sport coats and slacks to school during the week, and trash mansions on the weekends; that being poor was reason enough for ridicule and scorn; and that economic status was indeed the most important social issue for everyone. Rich = powerful and evil, Poor = unfortunate, scrappy, but ultimately creative and good. It wasn't until I picked up Brat Pack America, that I even thought to revisit those old plots and consider the implications.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’ve found my life’s work in talking to hardworking, scrappy, and ultimately creative and good people about their money. My goal is to help these folks use their limited resources as skillfully as possible to support their lives and their wild ambitions. But ever since I started talking to artists about their money I’ve noticed a common thread — and suddenly, I’m seeing a connection to those old John Hughes story lines: the people in my creative community are plagued by under earning.

The starving artists' pattern of under earning

It never comes out as “Guess what I got a job at Google and I told them, ‘forget the salary, I’m here just for the experience!’” More often, what I hear is:

“I was asked to create a temporary installation for an event, but they have no budget, so I’m just going to pay for everything, and hopefully get some good exposure out of it.”


“I felt weird asking how much they were going to pay me, so I did all the work, and then found out they had no budget … But that’s okay, it was my fault for not asking.”


“I probably could have negotiated for more, but I didn’t want them to think I was only in it for the money.”

I often find myself advocating to my clients that their time and expertise are worth far more than they are getting. I explain the value of their work from the buyer’s perspective, and contrast that to the income they’re giving up… But it doesn’t always sway people.

The resistance to asking for proper compensation can be incredibly powerful — so powerful, it seems, that we habitually avoid it even after we realize that we’re screwing ourselves. It feels impolite, scary, and ingrained into our personalities. We don’t want to identify as being motivated by money, so we’ve never felt comfortable asking for it. Where did this come from?

Is it still Van Gogh’s fault?

We love to blame our economic self-depreciation on the myth of the starving artist, romanticizing the penniless demise of cultural figures like Edgar Allan Poe or Mozart. But I'm now considering whether the art form that inspired this knee-jerk aversion to money can be found even closer to home.

I have to wonder — for those of us who were sensitive, art-kid-weirdos on the social fringe in the mid 1980s, watching gape-mouthed as economically-challenged, but creatively gifted teenagers suffered at the hands of their one-dimensional rich classmates — did the seed of a counter-productive idea get planted into our minds and unintentionally take root?

The idea that ‘money = evil’ could have easily bloomed for me in 1986 from watching the coolest gal in the universe, Pretty in Pink’s Molly Ringwald get dumped by Andrew McCarthy because he didn’t want to be seen at prom with her by his rich friends. I was involuntarily choked-up and teary when she showed up anyway in her shabby-chic, do-it-yourself, homemade dress crafted from hand-me-downs and thrift store scraps — even after the 50th viewing. In fact, I wanted to be her — living on the wrong side of the tracks, supporting her unemployed father with an after school record store job, painstakingly working into the night to attach grannie inspired-doilies to every item of clothing. And to walk in her shoes meant her enemies were also my enemies.

Or it might have been in 1987 while watching Some Kind of Wonderful’s Eric Stoltz blow his entire college savings account on a pair of diamond earring to impress an upscale Leah Thompson, only to get belittled and terrorized by her ultra-wealthy ex-boyfriend. And this handsome, redheaded underdog was of course an artist too — with such incredible natural talent that while working at his gas station job, he was able to find the time to paint a perfectly-rendered, life-size portrait of his crush from memory, and have it hung at their local museum. I identified with his, 'I make art because I have to, even though the other kids think I'm a sissy,' perseverance, and I would have definitely joined the rumble against the rich on his behalf — if only given a chance.

We art kids of the 80s are grown up now, and may be finding it hard to sustain real life with the 'money = evil' philosophy. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to stand up and say, “this is what I am worth, and I need to be paid accordingly” — especially when you haven’t had much practice.

Is John Hughes to blame? Probably not. He was just that moment's teen equivalent of Shakespeare, creating a tossed salad of classic high school angst dressed in the 'Me' Decade's 'rich vs. poor' vinaigrette. But recognizing what those influential films may have done, could solve the mystery for why we under earn that Van Gogh never could.

For you, it might not have been the Brat Pack, but some other snippet of pop culture from your youth that taught you to fear and loath money. Shoot me an email and tell me all about it. Or let me know if I’m full of s@#$. Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Very best,

P.S. To turn things around I created a Cue Card workbook that you can use to anticipate and practice your response to the 3 Most Awkward Money Conversations people have when negotiating a new project.

P.P.S. If you are a chronic under earner, and you want to talk about ways to make more money using your creative skills, I've got some ideas for you. Let's talk! Shoot me an email and we'll set-up a time. 


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