Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Price of Cognitive Dissonance

I am reading Robert Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, and like many authors who write on similar topics, he discusses cognitive dissonance: the unsettling phenomenon of adhering to two conflicting beliefs at the same time.  In a strange bit of synchronicity, I received some practical advice from another composer this week about pricing music composed for advertising.  He has done quite a bit more negotiating than I in this arena, and he has worked out a system which makes a great deal of sense.  There was one bit that he said that completely floored me, however: "Basically, just figure out the rock-bottom dollar amount you need from the project and start the negotiations at ten times that."

Cognitive dissonance sets in for me because I am confident that he knows what he's talking about, and yet I have concerns about pricing myself out of a project.  The underlying belief is that my time or my abilities aren't worth that much to other people.  It isn't that I think my time or talent isn't valuable -- although I'll freely admit that my mind can slip back to that paraphrasing rather easily.  When I dig down into it, it's the belief that other people don't see the value of what I have to offer, and therefore I can't possibly start off negotiations by asking for ten times what I absolutely need to make.  Three times that figure, maybe.  Any more than that just flies in the face of what I think about other people's ability or willingness to value... well, me.

I know that negotiations for a commercial project are different from collaboration with a music non-profit or a specific chamber ensemble, but in the more "artistic" arenas, I am even more likely to sell myself short because of my beliefs about non-profits and musicians and money.  The key part of my fellow composer's advice, though, is to start negotiations at ten times what I absolutely must make to undertake the project.  That also implies a willingness to come down as far as what I determine to be rock-bottom.  If I start at rock-bottom, I have no room to negotiate, and I won't be giving anyone a chance to see greater value in what I have to offer.

If I never challenge my beliefs about what value other people are capable or willing to see, they are not likely to change. But having a concrete dollar figure as a starting point for negotiation gives me a framework to experiment with my beliefs, which is in my opinion, a healthy way to confront cognitive dissonance.  If I believe two conflicting ideas, I could just choose one arbitrarily.  I could just live with the mental discomfort.  I could develop other beliefs to make sense out of the dissonance.  Confronting the competing beliefs head-on has the potential to lead to a stronger conviction in one direction or the other, and the best way I know to confront the beliefs is to test them where it's possible to do so.  Spiritual beliefs are somewhat immune to testing, but beliefs about negotiating a price for a project (and many other beliefs about myself and other people) are quite easily tested.

So, basing my numbers on a formula that has been tried and tested by a reliable source, I can determine the absolute minimum amount of money I need to receive in order to make a project worthwhile, and I can resolve not to allow negotiations to dip below that absolute minimum amount.  Multiplying that figure by ten gives me the starting point for my end of the negotiations, combined with the time-frame I believe I'll need to complete the work.  From there, the experiment will play out, hopefully over a series of projects, and I'll have a set of clear empirical data against which I can measure my beliefs about what my work is worth.  I can formulate hypotheses ahead of time, but the strong beliefs I have are hypotheses in and of themselves.  Ten times what I absolutely must make still seems exorbitant, and yet a part of me knows that it's an appropriate place to start.  The most challenging part may be to set aside the cognitive dissonance for awhile and allow my beliefs to be effectively tested.  The reward is a sense of personal value based on actual experience rather than whatever I invent inside my own head.  In other words, the high stakes are worth the challenge. 

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