100 Pesos: A Lesson in Valuing TIme and Effort

My cellphone was pick pocketed on a trip to Mexico City and I had only my ego to blame. A crowd had formed around me and I aggressively pushed through it not thinking I was playing directly into gang hands. Once I was aware of what happened, I turned to find the culprit, hoping to give chase, but to no avail as everyone had dispersed. The police in the area were unfazed and unhelpful so there I was with Sarah (my wife), and Alvaro (our guide for the day) standing on a corner in a less than desirable part of Mexico City, phoneless.

My immediate inclination was to ask Alvaro to send a text message to my mobile phone in Spanish, saying that we would make a payment to get it back. The key, I noted, was not however to give a price but simply note a willingness to pay. Skeptical, but obligingly, Alvaro agreed to send the text. He said that this would be futile but he would give it shot. A text was sent and then we waited. I was confident that they knew where we were, there were no tourists in the area, and our best bet was to see if they were up for the trade. This was the start of a short, but powerful lesson.

5 minutes passed and then just before we were about to move on a man on crutches (their gopher if you will) came over and said he had found a phone and in Spanish asked if we had dropped it in the crowd. Without any mention of price 100 Pesos (approx. US$6) changed hands in gratitude, no accusations, and the phone was back where it belonged.

Alvaro was amazed that this approach had worked so successfully and that I was not annoyed by what had happened. Explanations as to why the phone was returned were discussed over the next few days and my final conclusion is that the black market for a second hand Blackberry simply outweighed the holding costs! Whatever the explanation, I was grateful to have the phone back. My holiday remained unaffected and the situation was just another travel adventure to file away.

A few days later I came across an artist selling small handmade paintings on the side of the road. I asked his price and he explained he had a set price for his work of 4 paintings for 100 Pesos. In a country where negotiation is simply part of the process of making a purchase this steadfast approach to value was unique and refreshing, even more so given the cost of a lost sale in real terms is likely high. I explained that there were only two paintings I wanted but I would pay him 100 Pesos for two paintings. While he was extremely grateful the reality is his skill set is rare, and the value of his time worth far more, by any measure, than the price he ascribed.

Once back in my hotel I began reflecting on how to reconcile the value of 100 Pesos given the two disparate experiences. What would I have done in either situation if I had been asked the worth of each object? Have I ever fully appreciated the subjectivity ascribed to how services and products are priced? What does this teach me about how I value my own time and charge for my labour?

From the time I was 19 I wanted a career involving psychology; an internal unshakable vocation. When it comes to pricing for my time however this internal drive is often replaced by an external force known as the so called ‘market rate’. The market rate is most often nothing more than what I understand from my peers to be the general going rate for our services and my skill set. Ultimately pricing for my services may lack the same objectivity as my two experiences in Mexico.

On reflection I may not have taken enough time to establish for myself an internal basis for pricing my time. What is my internal guiding premise to how I value my efforts? By primarily relying on the market to set value I limit myself, by failing to think more deeply about how I value my chosen vocation and my time. In light of the range of endeavours that I could pursue that result in the same return on what basis are I choosing how I spend my time? Are I utilising my skills in what ultimately is most beneficial, to myself and others?

What my experience with 100 Pesos taught me is that I need to regularly take the time to re-establish the principles on which I value my time. For me that principle is happiness and growth. I love work because it allows me to grow and brings me joy.   I appreciate that I’m in a fortunate position to approach my work in this manner. While not justifying the actions of pickpockets, I naturally recognise that they do not have the same luxury of choice that I have.

For those that I coach however many are likewise faced with the same question of how best to work in the existence of choice. Like myself a key question they are invariably faced with at some stage is the basis by which to value their time and effort? In light of this question what will be their guiding principles to determine how they will make a living?

The reflective exercise of determining how one value’s time is an extremely valuable coaching aid. In my own case, while some consulting tasks that I engage in are not as lucrative as others, the personal growth that results, and the happiness I get from being involved in the jobs, mean that the trade is one I’m more than happy to accept. Like the painter my price however should be set by my principle and not the market. By establishing a guiding principle I have a basis by which to set my own rate independent of what others think.

The irony is that it was the pickpocket, not I, who was ripped off. Not only would I have paid 10x that amount to get my phone back, but being reminded to take a principled base to valuing time is, no pun intended, invaluable. And thus became the best 100 Peso investment I have made with a teacher whose principles maybe questioned, but whose experiential style was second to none!