How Do You Place a Value on Expertise?

It was Dr. Phil who observed, “We teach people how to treat us,” and whether you like him or not, I see it all the time.

One of the things I love about having some longevity in Brazilian jiu jitsu and the attendant lifestyle is that I am in a position to help people. Many of the questions people ask me, whether technical, relational, or strategic, frequently inspire the “ah, yes” reaction, a bit of nostalgia, and sometimes a squirm or two as I recall my own experiences.

I often find that things that seem readily apparent to me tend to be epiphanies for the people asking questions. That’s completely understandable; how can something seem like old hat if you’re experiencing it for the first time? So if I can provide a shortcut, or at least a better roadmap, for someone, I’ll do it, because it makes me happy to make someone else’s life a little easier. Also, selfishly speaking, it makes me feel valued. And who doesn’t want that?

Questioning My Value as a Professional

I have found this question of my value and my capacity to value myself in the BJJ world to become more complicated the more I think about it, though. In an ideal world, I would be able to help everyone who needs what I can offer, with no concern about the amount of time and effort it takes. In the real world, however, there are limits on my availability and energy. 

It turns out that, selfish though it may sound, the personal satisfaction I derive from helping others isn’t enough of a return on investment for me to do it all the time without impunity. I’m also a big believer in the importance of energy balance/exchange. If I take from you all the time and never give to you, if there isn’t some mechanism in place to remind me that the benefit I’m deriving is to be appreciated, it’s not good for either of us.

It sounds convenient, I know – maybe prelude to a big sell about how much my time is worth in dollars and cents – but the truth is, I have historically been ambivalent about when/what to charge for various grappling-related services. I have worked hard to learn as much as I now know about BJJ and the lifestyle (though of course I know a fraction of what there is to know).

In fact, depending on how you measure it, you could argue that it took me longer to earn my black belt than my doctorate. I have ample anecdotal evidence that the information and insights I have to share about grappling are useful to those who request them. So, arguably, sharing them should be worth some investment on the receiver’s part and some gain on mine. 

And yet, it has taken me years to get to the point where I feel comfortable even writing the above sentence. I have probably undervalued my skill set and resources in the past, and the people who ask me for help have allowed me to do so.

I don’t blame them. It was Dr. Phil who observed, “We teach people how to treat us,” and whether you like him or not, it’s a principle I see operating in my life all the time. So if I don’t set boundaries myself and help people see the value of what I offer by insisting on a fair exchange, then I am in effect teaching those people to treat me in a way that is inconsistent with my belief about the inherent value of that interaction. That means that any resultant burnout, energy depletion, or resentment I feel is on me. 

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Valuing Myself as a Professional

There was a time when I would ask others what a seminar or private lesson from me was worth to them, and then I’d proceed accordingly. I wasn’t prepared to assert myself, unapologetically and with a straight face. 

Now, though, I’m busy and a bit more confident. Not cocky, I hope, but with the benefit of accumulated experience and evidence, I’m very comfortable saying that if you attend any Groundswell Grappling Concepts event (like our upcoming July women’s camp at Princeton BJJ), schedule a private lesson with me, or arrange a conversation with me, you will not be disappointed.

I will do my level best not just to meet but to exceed your expectations; that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that I will now be that much better equipped to exceed those expectations because there will be a more equitable energy distribution. I’ll be replenished at the same rate that I’m being depleted. Or more nearly so.

I’m not saying I should be trying to gouge the people who come to me with genuine needs and wants that I can help with. Or that I should be starting the meter on every interaction I have, both on and off the mat. I understand that not every encounter with someone who is closer to the beginning of his or her path than I am should result in some kind of financial contract. But on the other hand, if I’m valuing myself and my potential contribution to this world, at least some should.

Only in This Profession

Recently, I came across an article by cartoonist and writer Tim Kreider, in which he discusses a different field but similar issues. How do I get my message out and help people while simultaneously commanding an appropriate appreciation of my value – from myself as well as others? 

I consider this question particularly in a context where BJJ academy tuition is frequently waived in favor of vaguely understood agreements that payment will instead take the form of some combination of mopping the mats, helping with the kids’ class, maintaining the academy website? Where the capacity of an experienced practitioner to command rates for privates and seminars could be argued to be skewed unfairly downward by students who see no issues with haggling and with taking up as much of a black belt’s time – with no exchange of any kind – as that black belt will allow? Again, this is not something I necessarily blame students for, hungry as they are for knowledge, though it does seem some expectations setting is warranted.

Consider this example: Some years ago, a BJJ dignitary visited the academy I was then training at. This person trained during a regular session and rolled with as many different people as the length of the class would allow, taking time to provide extra details or suggestions to each person who asked. When the class ended, this person spent perhaps an additional fifteen minutes answering questions, but then eventually said to the assembled students, who showed no signs of departing, “These are all good questions, and I could answer them better if you each scheduled a private lesson with me.” 

To say the reaction to this announcement was indignant, appalled, even, is an understatement. After becoming enculturated to a context where money concerns always seem to be negotiable, this group of students was incredulous to think that they should be compensating this person for his/her expertise, and equally importantly, his/her time.

Comments abounded like, “Well, I just wanted ten or fifteen more minutes.” That may have been true, but so did the other dozen people who were clustered around. (You can do the math.) Further, as Kreider suggests, these same people would never have thought to demand a meal for free in a restaurant, tried to wheedle a gratis fifteen minutes of time and information from their doctor or lawyer, or otherwise expected any other professional to give without expectation of compensation in return.

The Professionalization of BJJ Occupations

In some ways I’m burying the lede on this story, possibly because I’m not entirely sure what it is. I am all for the continued professionalization of occupations related to the BJJ field. My goal is not to announce that I have hung my shingle. Rather, as is probably evident, my thoughts (and my comfort level) with these topics are in the developmental stages, and I’m sure others have opinions about them.

So, if this article encourages others to share their own beliefs and practices related to valuing their services, then I get to learn from them. If not, then I have still spent some time thinking through what I am willing to own vis-à-vis valuing what I have to offer as a BJJ professional.

Do you have thoughts, or better still, articulated policies and procedures about how to value your expertise and experience, whether in BJJ or a different fitness-related field? Do you find others’ expectations to be inconsistent with yours? How do you address this? How do your individual actions affect your peers, not to mention the direction of your sport? Post your observations and expectations to comments. 

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.