Ep. #18: Words to Eradicate: DESERVE

When we “deserve” something, we’ve earned it. We’re entitled to it. On the surface this may seem reasonable, but deserve is actually a delinquent concept that leads to wealth-killing problems such as sabotage, underearning, ineffective negotiations, and disserving entitlement. Listen to find out why.


Welcome to Rich & Thin Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s show is the start of something new—a “Words to Eradicate” series, in which I’ll devote an episode from time to time to discuss a disempowering word or phrase that’s become part of our wealth-building lexicon, but that really doesn’t serve us.  I’m Kelly Hollingsworth, and I’m happy you’re here because there are so many concepts that have crept into our vocabularies that do absolutely nothing for us, and when we take notice of the effect that these words and phrases, or rather the concepts behind them, have on us, our earnings, and our overall happiness, that’s the first step in getting out from under the weight of these concepts, and the negative effects they have on our wealth.

The word I want to discuss today is “deserve.” This isn’t a word that most of us would flag as controversial or problematic, but I think it’s actually one of the more damaging words we use in terms of wealth-creation, and today I’d like to explain why.

So let’s start off with a definition. To deserve something means to be worthy of it. We’re entitled to it, or we’ve earned it.

And that doesn’t sound so bad, so why is this a problem? I started thinking about “deserve” as a problematic concept over the years because it always seems to show up in places where wealth struggles happen. It’s like a delinquent friend of one of your children who just so happens to always be around when cars get scratched or the dishwasher blows up or the dog goes missing. So today I’d like to go over a few of the landmines that typically go on in the vicinity of the word “deserve” so you can keep an eye out for them in your own life.

Deserve as Sabotage

The first place I see deserve causing problems is that we often use it when we’ve been working to get somewhere, we’ve been killing whatever wealth-building task is in front of us—and now we’re contemplating sabotage. I deserve a donut, if we’re trying to lose weight. Or, I deserve a diamond, if we’re trying to get out of debt.

Diamonds and donuts are of course neutral—like all circumstances, they’re just there. They’re neither good nor bad. They become forces of good or evil depending on how and why we’re using them.

If we spend the week following a weight-loss program in an effort to lose 40 pounds, and then decide we’ve been so good we deserve to go on a donut bender when the weekend rolls around, that’s sabotage.

If we spend months or years trying to get out of debt, and then decide we’ve been so good that we “deserve” to finance (and make payments on) a big fat diamond, that’s sabotage.

I like a good diamond, and a good donut, as much as anyone, but here’s what I’d like you to notice: Sabotage is how we let off steam when our insides aren’t aligned with what we’re doing on the outside. We’re dieting, but we still want donuts. We’re digging out of debt, but we want to charge some diamonds at the jewelry store. But instead of dealing with this cognitive dissonance, the river of misery we’re in when we want two seemingly conflicting things because we haven’t looked at what we’re thinking and gotten ourselves, our brains, and our goals into alignment, we instead get exhausted from white-knuckling. We’re white-knuckling against our own desires and throw up our hands and use “deserve” as the mechanism to justify this sabotage to ourselves so we don’t have to white-knuckle anymore.

Why do we sabotage ourselves? Often it’s because we feel we’re getting a little too high on the ladder. We’re struggling under the weight of an identity that’s at odds with our success and isn’t serving us. We begin to get some success that feels a little too lofty—we’re getting ahead on our weight loss, we’re getting ahead on paying off debt–and we begin wondering, who do we think we are exactly??? Maybe other people are asking us this. When this is going on, when we begin exceeding our own expectations, achieving a level of financial wealth or weight loss or any other accomplishment that seems not quite appropriate on some level, maybe even a little selfish, that’s when we do something to pull ourselves back down, and often we use the word “deserve” as the mechanism to accomplish it. “I deserve a donut” after a week of following a weight-loss protocol is another way of saying, “I don’t really deserve to have the beautiful healthy body I set out to achieve.”

So deserve is often code, and it’s damaging code. Used in this context, it’s a virus of sabotage that we unleash into our own operating systems. It sounds like we’re treating ourselves well, but really we’re knocking ourselves down a peg or two, to get down to the lower level where we, and those around us, are more comfortable. And this is one reason I think deserve as a concept doesn’t serve us.

Deserve and Underearning

A second way deserve hurts us is in commerce. Underearners are always asking themselves, “What do I deserve?” Another way they say this is, “What am I worth?” or “Help me figure out what I’m worth.”

We’re human beings. We’re all worth the same. What varies in value is the good or service that we deliver in the marketplace. But if we’re fixated on deservedness, we’re ignoring the transaction in front of us and how to price it, and instead we’re all up in our own heads and feeling bad about ourselves, and that’s when we’re setting ourselves up to underearn.

In episode 14 I talked about a programmer who was underearning because he didn’t think he deserved more money. Why? Because he wasn’t up to speed in computer languages that he didn’t even use in his work. This wasn’t about the market value of his services—it was about his own subjective assessment of his personal value based on skills he didn’t possess that were irrelevant to the transaction.

So let’s take deserve out of the picture. In commerce the price of a good or service is never about us. It’s not moral or puritanical. There’s no karmic payoff or penalty based on how hard we work, how much we studied, whether we have an MBA or not, what we weigh, how funny we are, or any other personal characteristics. It’s only about how well we perform—can we do the task at hand and if we can, what is it worth to our counterparty—our client or employer? Pricing is always about the value we bring to the marketplace with that good or service and not about irrelevant characteristics that we do or don’t possess. An MBA who walked into a diner and wanted a waitressing job wouldn’t be worth more in that job, even if he or she thought she deserved it, and if you’re doing the same job as an MBA outside of a diner in whatever context you’re working in, and you’re performing at the same level, you should be paid similarly whether you possess one an MBA not, because deserve has no place in commerce.

What I see is that deserve does nothing except to thwart those of us who buy into its trap. I was reading a book this week called, Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, which explores why women don’t negotiate for things nearly as often as men do. They don’t negotiate for salaries or plum assignments or better working conditions or anything else at anything close to the same frequency as men. And according to the book this is largely the reason that women earn so little relative to men. Over a lifetime, the cumulative effect of this refusal or unwillingness to ask for things is staggering and may be a significant if not the primary or sole reason that women underearn relative to men.

The question is why don’t they ask? Many reasons are explored in the book, but a big reason they don’t ask is because they’re focused on the idea of what they deserve. They think that people are fair, and in a fair system, the rewards they “deserve” will be bestowed upon them. They think if they just work hard, they’ll get what they want, because they deserve it.

The book cites example after example about this kind of thinking leading to not negotiating and underearning, and this is consistent with what I see in practice—underearners typically think thoughts like these–but it’s not just women who do this, so in my mind gender is not the dividing line. What I see is that the dividing line is our thoughts. Male or female, if you think thoughts like these, you’re going to refuse to negotiate, you’re going to hold back in negotiations, and instead focus on what you deserve and hope it will somehow magically come your way.

This is always a disempowering place to be, because it puts your compensation wholly in someone else’s hands. This is problematic for wealth-creation because, as we’ve all so often heard, you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate. The high-earners that are described in the book Women Don’t Ask, and the high earners that I see in practice, don’t even think about deserve. It’s just not relevant in their minds, and that’s why they earn more. This is another reason that I think deserve isn’t helpful as a concept.

Deserve leads to ineffective negotiations

Another big problem with deserve is in negotiations, because it asks for a current reward based on the past. It’s a sign that we’ve kicked our negotiations down the road and now we’re trying to negotiate after the fact. Often we do this in an employment context. Consider what happens when we’re looking for a raise. Often we start out in employment with the employer saying, “I want to pay less to see if you deserve more,” and then when we go to having the discussion about getting more, then what happens? How do these conversations typically go? They don’t go well, and to see why, please consider some points I pulled from an online essay about why the writer deserved a raise. The writer said:

  • I accomplished the goals.
  • I met the standards.
  • I listened to you as my employer and I respected you.
  • I showed up on time.
  • I did my tasks to matter how busy we were.
  • I took care of customers first, and then I did my other tasks.
  • I had someone watch my desk while I was away.
  • The customers left happy.

This kind of listing in a raise-negotiation is consistent with what I see in practice—it’s backwards-looking. When we’re talking about “deserving” a bump in our compensation, we’re almost always talking about a reward we want now, for something we’ve done in the past. We’re even coached to do this—compensation experts will tell us to list our past accomplishments to get a raise. And that’s the essence of “deserve,” isn’t it? We’re now entitled to something based on our past acts of service. We’ve earned it.

Why is this ineffective? Because no one wants to pay more now for a service they’ve already received. These conversations seem reasonable, we’re coached to do them. But if you scratch the surface on a conversation like this, and look at it just a little more closely, it borders on ridiculous. To see why, consider how the same conversation would go outside of an employment context. I’m a lawyer, and if I did some work for a client in exchange for an agreed-upon rate, and I went in after the fact and tried to negotiate for more, what would they say? They would look at me like I was nuts. I would say look:

  • I wrote the documents.
  • They were awesome.
  • I did the work.
  • I listened to you, and I respected you.
  • I met the deadlines (Showed up on time.)
  • I worked late (I did my tasks to matter how busy I was.)
  • I had someone watch my desk while I’m away.
  • I Took care of your problems.

If I went in with this, what would my client say? They’d say, “I know. And I PAID you to do all of that!” They’d look at me like I was nuts, because I agreed to work for x in exchange for all of that work that I just listed, but now I want more than x.

People don’t like to pay more than what was already agreed for work that is already done. It feels like a bait and switch, even if that person is an employer who was complicit in setting up the bait and switch in the first place, by telling you that they’re going to pay more later if you can prove you deserve it. So be careful out there. You’re always going to have to negotiate. You’re either going to have to do it now, before you’ve done the work, or later, when you “deserve” it, and it’s a lot more effective to do it before the work is done. That’s when they want it the most.

Last night I took my dog Sheffield to an emergency after-hours animal hospital because he was having an issue, I won’t go into the details but I’ll just say that the dog was miserable and his issue was threatening to wreck my carpets and make a mess of my entire house. I paid through the nose for that visit and the emergency after-hours vet, and in the morning when we awoke and everything was relatively fine—dog is on the mend, carpets are still white, house is intact, I’m looking at the receipt for the vet visit and wondering, was it worth it?

This is human nature. When we’re in the midst of the issue, and our savior comes in on a white horse, that’s when we’re going to pay for what the service is worth. Not later, when everything is fine and the work is done and we can’t remember how bad it was. Looking back on last night, putting myself back in that little debacle, if anything, that vet charged me too little, not too much. She’s working all night, she’s working every night, to save pets and their people from all manner of unpleasant problems, and that’s worth a lot. It’s especially worth a lot in the middle of the night when you have no other options.

The underearners among us might call this taking unfair advantage. I call it commerce, and really, who’s disadvantaged? If the vet continues to underearn, if she doesn’t charge a significant premium over vets who get to go to sleep at night and work during the day like the rest of the civilized world, how long is she going to continue to perform this emergency service? I want her there for whenever there’s an emergency, so I’d rather pay more, not less, to make sure she’s there when I need her.

Am I going to call and tell her this? Maybe, because helping people earn more money is my business. I love to do it, and it’s what I get paid to do. Sometimes I even do it for free, but few others would even consider this, and this is my next point on the problem of “deserve” in commerce.

Deserve as an Ineffective Approximation of for Fairness

Those of us who don’t want to negotiate, who hate the very idea, often think that the world should function as a meritocracy, We shouldn’t have to negotiate anything. If we deserve it, they should just give it to us. That’s what’s fair, so it’s what should happen.

The question here is, who decides? The problem with “fair’ in commerce is that it’s completely subjective. There’s no universal definition. There’s only what a willing buyer would pay to a willing seller in an arm’s length transaction. That’s the market price. For example, I know people who would pay $200, $400, or even $1000 for a pair of jeans. Is this “fair”?

I wouldn’t pay it. I don’t have a problem with it, but I wouldn’t pay it, because I’m a purse person. The parties to the transaction—the buyer and seller of the jeans—don’t have a problem with it. If they did, they wouldn’t have entered into the transaction. But many bystanders do have a problem with it. They say, “No one deserves that much money for a pair of blue jeans” or “No one deserves to wear jeans that cost that much money.”

Deserve as a Ceiling on Wealth

This illustrates another problem with the word “deserve.” When we use it in contexts like these, we’re expressing judgment—negative judgment–about what others have and what they earn and the pleasures they allow themselves. In this context, deserve is the mental ceiling that we set on wealth—what’s appropriate for others and for ourselves. It’s a negative judgment that limits us behind the scenes without us even knowing it’s happening.

I didn’t think I had a ceiling like this, or at least I was unaware of what mine was, until one day I was reading about Michael Dell’s new apartment in Manhattan. $100 million. And before I even knew what was happening, I thought, “No one deserves that much money.”

And bam. That’s my ceiling. Why did I think this? Not because he doesn’t deserve the money. He’s sold me some great computers in my lifetime. I got a lot done on those computers, I made a lot of money, and they were worth what I paid and then some.  I thought it because I was jealous. On the surface, these kinds of thoughts  are couched in fairness. They’re almost always couched in fairness, but dig a little deeper, and what I typically see in practice, and what I definitely saw in my own case when I was thinking about Michael Dell and his apartment, was a little more revealing. It’s not just about what’s fair in an altruistic, objective sense, or even a moral sense. It’s almost always about “this isn’t fair because I can’t have it but I want it so why should you have it?” And this brings me to my final point on “deserve.” When we’re thinking in terms of deserve, we’re almost always thinking about ourselves, rather than serving others, and this self-focused place is not where wealth comes from.

Deserve as Self-Centered Entitlement

In preparing for this episode, I googled, “I deserve a *” so a whole bunch of stuff came up. And among the first results was this: “Three reasons I deserve a scholarship.” The writer’s three reasons were: I’m persistent (because I apply for a lot of these scholarships). I’m unique (because no one else is going to fill out their scholarship application the way I will). And third, I overcome obstacles—just tell me I can’t do something and I’ll prove you wrong. The writer reported having a hard time securing a scholarship, and I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to guess at the reason: this is a completely self-focused message. There’s no service in here anywhere. It’s 100% self-serving.

In commerce, in a commercial message, and even in a charitable message, the question we should all be asking ourselves is, “What’s in it for them?”

It doesn’t matter what we’re asking for—the person giving it up isn’t bestowing it upon us solely for our benefit. They never do so to fulfill our interests. It’s not about what we deserve. It’s about fulfilling their own interests. This is true even in charity. Charitable organizations that are the most effective in gathering donations talk about what’s in it for the donor. They don’t say, “You should give us money because we’re really good at what we do and we deserve it, as do our beneficiaries.” They say, “You should donate money to the cause because then you can feel great knowing that you have done so much to help these people or make this change or prevent this injustice.”

Notice how different these two messages are. The effective message is not about what the charity deserves, or even what the charity’s beneficiaries deserve. It’s about what the donor gets—good feelings that come from the knowledge that they’ve helped someone and made a difference. Similarly, a scholarship applicant should discuss the benefits to the university by awarding the scholarship to them. “Here’s what I can bring to you,” in terms of a unique perspective or contribution to the school is always going to be more effective than, “here’s why I deserve what I want and you should give it to me.”

So that’s my last point for today: deserve is a word we should eradicate because it’s “I” centered, it focuses on me, and that’s not where wealth comes from. Not financial wealth and not any other kind. Michael Dell has an apartment I don’t have because he’s served people I haven’t served, and he charged what his customers considered a fair price and so they paid it. What he “deserved,” in his own mind, or in the minds of bystanders to those transactions, had nothing to do with it.

So there you have it. That’s what I have for you today. Five reasons why we should consider eradicating the word “deserve” from our vocabularies—all too often, it leads to sabotage, underearning, ineffective negotiations, and disserving entitlement. It also sets a ceiling on our wealth. If you’d like to share your own thoughts about the word “deserve” or the concept of deservedness, please go to the page for this episode, richandthin.com/18, and leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m sure the other listeners would as well.

And with that, I’ll close by saying I hope you have a great week. I want to thank you for listening and I look forward to connecting with you next time.

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