Salary Negotiations in Four Acts


My first salary negotiation was for my very first paying job. I was 22. I had already been an intern at the organization for a few months, and the executive director called me into her office, where we sat on uncomfortably high stools around a very small table. She said that she was happy to offer me a full-time, salaried position and told me the salary. It was not much money, but it was a salary and a title (my first other than “intern”) and I was thrilled. I knew that I was supposed to negotiate, probably from listening to my family talk about work. But had no idea how to do it, and felt extremely awkward. I think my boss did too. I remember feeling like we were dueling with our eyes closed, both too scared to look at the damage we were causing.  I remember saying something about how I had expected the salary to be higher and she agreed, offering a slightly higher number. I readily agreed. We could uncover our eyes. I had increased my salary by a couple thousand dollars.

Lesson: Negotiations are not comfortable. It’s ok that they aren’t comfortable, just be prepared for it. Sitting through awkward silences is a killer tactic.


When I left that job for my subsequent job, I didn’t negotiate. At all. I remember standing in an empty private office at the job I was leaving, speaking on the phone with the president of the company at my future job. He was very matter of fact. “You will be paid this per hour, which comes out to this annual salary. Including benefits, it comes out to… which is a very good amount for someone with your level of experience.” I knew that I wasn’t supposed to accept on the spot, but I had no idea how to ask for more, especially since his offer was already a lot more than I was making and I was desperate for a new job. I told him that I needed to think about it, and he said that I should get back to him as soon as possible so that he could let other candidates know. I called him back the next day to accept. I later learned that there were no other candidates and that he doesn’t like negotiating and really does think his offers are fair.

Lesson: Different people have different attitudes about negotiation, but it never hurts to ask.


My next negotiation was more of a freak out than anything else. I had been working at this company for over a year and was I was enjoying the work and my level of responsibility. The company had regular annual raises and promotions, and my boss had pulled me aside beforehand. As we walked around the block in the residential neighborhood where the office was located, he let me know that I wasn’t going to be promoted because I hadn’t been in my position for long enough, and that I could expect a promotion in another 6 or 12 months. This sounded reasonable to me when we talked about it, but when I got the email that listed all of my coworkers who were getting promoted, I was upset. I felt that everyone around me was being promoted, while I had just taken over a big project and had gotten nothing. Instead of dealing with this calmly, I exploded when my boss later stopped by my desk to tell me what my raise was that year. I don’t remember what incoherent words tumbled out of my mouth, but it definitely involved something about how I would have been making more if I had been promoted. To his credit, he didn’t get defensive. He recognized that I was upset and said that he would follow up with me later. We exchanged a few emails (where I explained myself more rationally), and he ended up giving me a slightly bigger raise (and I was promoted six months later).

Lesson: Don’t freak out. Or do, it works sometimes, but I can’t say that I recommend this tactic in a professional environment.


When I was hired for my current position, I had some advantages over my younger self. I was older and wiser than I’d been in the past; I had read quite a bit on negotiation (some favorites are listed below), and I’d taken a negotiation class in graduate school. The class was actually on consensus building for public policy, but it was full of negotiation strategies that can apply to salary, too. More than age, what made me really wise was that the organization posted a salary range with the position description, so I knew what numbers were reasonable. To prepare, I watched some videos from Ramit Sethi, borrowed my friend Rebecca’s book, and talked strategy with friends. I made some notes about why I thought I should be paid more, writing down some specific phrases that I could say. I found the phrases “I would be more comfortable if…” and “it would make this a really easy decision for me” very helpful.

The negotiation was with an HR person, and ended up being a few nerve-wracking rounds of phone tag and two conversations over a couple days. I really wanted this job, but decided in advance that I could go through two round of negotiations. She first offered me the bottom of the salary range, and I countered with some reasons that I thought I deserved a higher rate, while also affirming that I was really excited about the job and the organization. I didn’t give a specific number, but generally asked for a higher salary.  I also asked about vacation, hoping for more paid time off, but this wasn’t up for negotiation. She returned with a slightly higher value, and I again said that, while I was really eager to take the position, that the salary made it a hard decision for me. I was prepared to sit in silence on the phone or to defer, but wasn’t going to accept the amount on the spot. I think I was pretty repetitive in this conversation, but I didn’t budge. She went back to confer with others to see what the budget would allow, and in the end, she offered me $10,000 increase in salary over her initial offer, which put me in the middle of the salary range for the position. I was thrilled, and still am. Since joining the organization, I’ve learned how hard it is to get a raise or promotion, so I’m very glad that I negotiated when I joined.

Lesson: Preparation is invaluable. I got so nervous (read: sweaty) during this negotiation; it was extremely helpful to have a few arguments and phrases written down that I would go back to, including a delay tactic. It’s alright, and sometimes even advisable, to postpone and give yourself time to regroup.

I’m sure Small Answers will write more (much more) on negotiation, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorite resources:

Image: Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel (1899), illustration by Ilya Repin

How to Take Yourself on a Work Retreat

Pollock Autumn Rhythm

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.”

— Confucius

In February 2012, plagued by the feeling of life moving past me, of not achieving the things I set out to do, and generally feeling unsettled in my career, I decided to plan time to reflect and make sure I was working towards the things wanted in my life. For my excursion I planned a day-long solo retreat (“emphasis on TREAT” say my notes from the day) which I spent walking along Ocean Beach and through Land’s End, taking myself out to lunch at a favorite pizza place, and writing out some reflections and feelings as I sipped coffee at a cafe. I came to no new conclusions per se, but it felt great to organize the feelings of discomfort and discontent that had been circling around in my head and to expel them onto a page.

Since then, I’ve kept up a regular habit where I take some time alone (a day or overnight trip) every three months or so to think through the current issues in my career and life. I started calling them “quarterly retreats,” but my friend insisted this was too corporate (like I should report back on profits and earnings), and suggested renaming them “seasonal reflections.”

(read more…)

Invisible Scripts: Do You Know What You Think You Know?

Buy our invisible script popper!

An invisible script is an assumption that is so baked in to how you view the world and your choices that you don’t even question it. It often involves an inner voice telling you what you should do, need to do, or can’t do.

Here are some common invisible scripts we can think of off the top of our heads:

  • I need to go to grad school to be successful
  • Traveling is the best way to spend free time/money
  • If I follow my passion, I’ll find a job I love (or, I need to follow my passion in my career)
  • I can’t raise kids while living in a city
  • I’ll be happy once I make more money
  • Spending a lot of money on gifts demonstrates much I care
  • After getting married, I need to buy a house
  • Couples who are truly compatible never have bad fights
  • It’s important to be liked
  • The harder something is to attain, the more important it is
  • My job has to be completely sustaining to me
  • Being busy all the time means you are important and valued

(read more…)

I’m Sorry, Tim Ferriss

Moral dubiousness of the 4-hr Work Week

I owe Tim Ferriss an apology.

When “The 4 Hour Work Week” came out in 2007, I hated it without reading it. A high school friend (we’ll call him Don) read it and was inspired to follow Ferriss’ advice to the letter. Don slowly built up a business selling weight loss pills online– he was simply the middleman, automating the manufacturing and delivery. It took him a couple years to get the business to a profitable point, at which point he quit his job to run this business with minimal effort from a laptop while traveling the world. (Exactly what the book suggests.)

I was horrified. I watched Don set up a scam-y business (who thinks these diet pills work?) and assumed that “The 4-hour Work Week” had nothing good to recommend it. Recently though, I’ve been thinking about how it would be nice to have more free time, and the idea of a 4-hour work week (or even just a shorter work week) sounded more and more appealing. So I pulled the book out of the library to if there were any nuggets of wisdom there.

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Career Advice from a Tarot Card Reader

tarot cards

Stepping into the shop was like entering the wand store in Harry Potter. The store was small, dark and filled with crystals, swords, and rows of books on mysticism, goddesses and sacred texts. Velvet chairs faced a fireplace and the proprietor immediately launched into a rant about how much he hates the term “new age” (the mysticism he practices is ancient).

I was there to have my tarot cards read. A friend of mine had seen a card reader in this mysticism shop and recommended him as a particularly intuitive guy. I was immediately curious. At 30, with several years of work experience under my belt (and many, many more ahead), I’m trying to figure out what I want in my career. I’ve started taking time to reflect on this a few times a year, and decided that a tarot card reading would be a good start for my springtime reflection. I don’t personally believe that there is magic in the cards, and certainly wasn’t expecting him to predict my future or anything, but I figured it was guaranteed to be something to reflect on. (read more…)