“You start to question your self worth” in the silence, and short emails, and meaningless “thank you for applying” replies. My friend Laura and I are eating bagged lunches on the Elevated Acre in the financial district, over the East River. I’ve told her I’ve stopped allowing myself excitement. Laura relates how she doubted her very worth as a person during her job search in New York in the past. My energy depleted, I’ve just come from another interview and another bad night’s sleep, nervous, and I am certain I want to go home and cry. Cry is not something I’ve done yet during my job search, but I am exhausted. Dozens of applications, in several cities, with countless re-tailored resumes, endless cover letters, hours on LinkedIn, many informational interviews and networking conversations, three spreadsheets, and too many dead-end actual interviews… for months. Five months to be exact. Just another candidate, just another candidate.
The responses piled up. “Don’t contact us, we’ll contact you.” “Thank you for applying.” “Unfortunately…” “We regret to inform you…” “We’ve opted not to interview you.” “We’ve decided to concentrate our attention on other candidates.” In the worst cases, the response was silence. Professional courtesy is the responsibility of the candidate, a courtesy rarely offered in return, due to the “volume of applicants” or the “competitiveness” of the job market. Worse than applying for college, I am again a number. A tiny fish in a big pool – filled mostly with sharks.
I wonder what it’s like for someone who is not in the position I am in, which is basically a position of privilege, heading out into the world with my education and my support system. How ruthless the world is for the unemployed, how much more ruthless it must be for those with less advantages than I. And I’m the one who wants to cry. It takes a type of resilience to hold out for a job in my field of interest. What type of resilience does it take to hold on for any job? I feel a new and bitter empathy for and with the unemployed and underemployed. All I want to do is good. You don’t even have to pay me that much.
I remember the speech that was given at my high school graduation. “Don’t be afraid to work in the mailroom,” said a man who had started in the mailroom, presumably, then worked his way up to the top. I often think about the mailroom. I am not scared of the mailroom. I just can’t find a mailroom that wants to hire me. You wouldn’t believe the “administrative assistant” or “intern” positions I’ve applied for and been turned down. You start questioning your self worth.
Part of my problem, I realized last week, is also that this whole time I have been approaching my interviews wrong. Whether the first call-back or all the way into a finalist round, I had been preparing myself with a frenetic energy that included imagining all the questions, considering responses, trying to determine what I could say that would “set me apart.” That’s what everyone tells you to do. My Career Advisor, employers, job hunt gurus alike: Set yourself apart. We mock interview and prep and think about how to make ourselves sound great. I was constantly practicing responses about why I was different or what work I had done that was special and then I would try to work it into my responses. Constantly, my responses—instead of sounding great—fell flat. They lacked luster, passion, and authenticity, my very light sucked out in my desperation to impress.
Last week, before a brief pre-screening interview with an organization’s HR department, I realized that I do not need to prepare in this frenetic and desperate way. I am set apart simply because I am. No one else has the specific experiences I have, thinks about the world the way I do, or is dedicated in the exact same ways I am. Yes, there are people who are clearly better than I am at many things but no one else is simply me. The way I’ve lived my life and chosen to work and pursue a better world is uniquely me. I do not need to imagine up any great response. I need to respond with only my genuine self. I’ve done the legwork to set myself up for a job. I am qualified. I have worth. Why have I been told all along to try to find ways to make myself sound special when all along I should have been told, “You’re special. Show them.” ?
The best book I read during my job search came by way of my mailbox. My friend Sarah left Brene Brown’s book, “The gifts of imperfection” in my pendeflex at school and I read it immediately, feeling liberated and relieved.
It came at a perfect time, resonating with my job search process: “The comparison mandate becomes the crushing paradox of ‘fit in and stand out!’ It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging, authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better. It’s easy to see how difficult it is to make time for the important things such as creativity, gratitude, joy, and authenticity when we’re spending enormous amounts of energy conforming and competing.”
I had been wanting to remember joy and authenticity, and in reading that, my crushing expectations for myself evaporated. The job search became a beautiful process of loving myself as I am and not as an imagined greater version of myself. Still, the words have been hard to keep in mind as rejections pile up. The good I stand for often feels homeless, as it drifts aimlessly between applications, hoping for a place to flourish.
In a job interview last week, at the end, the interviewer asked me about a book I read recently that impacted my life. I told her about “The gifts of imperfection.” And now, as I stand seeking and hoping, I am remembering there are only two important things to be in the job search: 1) valued and 2) authentic. The right position will allow me to be both those things.