Graduation is fast approaching, which means my job hunt is on. While most companies don't seriously start hiring college grads until at least March, I have applied to (and interviewed for) a handful a jobs. So far my applications have been met with resounding silence (typical) and a few polite rejections. That's to be expected, obviously, and the silence and rejection aren't the most demoralizing parts of the search for me. The worst part is how fake it seems I have to be every step of the way.
It Starts With the Listings
But of course, those lists are often not hard requirements. Indeed, many employers are simply listing examples of types of languages or tools you should know, so I've been applying anyway. The fact that I'm not fluent in 10 languages and haven't used every build tool under the sun isn't even really a reason not to hire me. It's also not a lack of experience - RIT ensured I'd be entering the job market with real work experience already (thank goodness). No, I'm difficult to hire for a more subtle reason, which only makes it all the more frustrating.
Getting a Job is a Game
Every step of the process is, in some way, a social game. And I hate social games. I'm bad at them, so I opt out of as many as I can. There are so many subtleties to everything, from the phrasing of your cover letter, to your résumé, to not only what you say at an interview but what you don't say. The general advice at every point boils down to, "don't lie, but make yourself sound as best as you possibly can."
In theory that's great. Every applicant should try to appear like they're the best - it's a competition after all. But in doing so, applicants almost always sacrifice something incredibly important: authenticity.
The entire application process, from initial contact to signing the employment contract is, essentially, a lie (or, at least, a very glorified truth). Conventionally, we're told that every single thing we do should be an attempt to standout from everyone else. We exagerate the truth, not so it's a lie, but so that it sounds more impressive than it probably is. In interviews, we're supposed to carefully word everything to our advantage without appearing too cocky, or too shy, or too inadequate, or [insert other potentially negative trait here]. The game is nothing more than a series of moves and countermoves that somehow result in (eventually) getting a job. The whole thing is so contrived from beginning to end it feels unbearably fake.
I'd Rather Be Authentic
There are few traits, if any, I value more highly than authenticity. I have no patience for people who seem fake. So much of life is determined by seemingly arbitrary social patterns. We all "agree" to do things a certain way because it's just the way we do them (see Social Constructionism). Many social conventions prove useful, but all too often I find myself feeling how fake it all is. We're all constantly putting on a show for each other. As someone who typically struggles with social games, it's exhausting. I opt out as often as I can.
So when applying for jobs, I'm not going out to oversell my skills. I know what I know and don't know, I know my strengths and weaknesses and can talk about them in equal measure. Rarely do job applicants get an opportunity to do so, though. In order to get that far, you have to somehow sell yourself more than everyone else vying for an employer's attention. Odds are, the person who exaggerates more convincingly than you has their attention.
Few employers want to hire someone who's a little too full of themselves, but humility appears to be a seriously undervalued skill. Humility is a modest or low view of one's own importance - not exactly the advice you'll hear in any career training. But being humble isn't the same as not knowing your skills, or knowing the value of what you have to offer, it's just being modest in expressing it. Yet every step of the application process almost requires the opposite. Which explains why if I say, "that person in the office who really needs to stop talking about themselves" you immediately can picture someone you've worked with before. We're told not to be cocky, but also don't be too modest - so where's the middle ground?
It's a constant back and forth, and the degree of acceptable humility varies from employer to employer. With every application, you need to judge, "will they think I'm being cocky, or will they not think I'm qualified?"
I've tried to play that game a few times with some applications, but it just feels so wrong to me. It's contrived, and it feels fake. For what? In the hope that they take me seriously? If I have to walk a very fine line to appear valuable to them in the first place, what's the point? What happens after I'm hired? I'd rather be unapologetically real, whether they appreciate it or not.
My Own Dangerous Game
By not playing "the game" I am, of course, playing my own game. When I stop following everyone else's rules, I'm taking a risk. I can still appear cocky even if I sell myself modestly just by not following the other rules, and by not playing the usual game I risk appearing inadequately qualified. But I don't want to fake my way into a job. I refuse to overstate my skills even the slightest and I will forever acknowledge my own weaknesses in an interview, even if they cost me a job.
Is it really too much to ask that my employer value me as a person first and an employee second? Maybe this is my inner Entitled Millenial speaking, but this is what I'm actually looking for. The right employer will value my authenticity as an asset. They will see the value in knowing exactly what they're getting from me - the good and the bad. Sadly, my experience in job searching so far has proven this narrows my opportunities.
Now look, there are plenty of reasons for a company not to hire me. My Twitter timeline alone will turn away any company that finds it unacceptable for their employees to say "fuck" publicly. And that's fine. That's the risk I'm accepting by being unapologetically authentic all the time. This post is not intended to be a complaint that I'm not just being handed a job.
The point is: job hunting is demoralizing because everything we're ever taught about it asks us to be the best, and it's reflected in everything from the listings to the application to the interview. Somewhere along the way we have to start putting on an act. Lost in that act are most of the "soft skills" that make people enjoyable to work with, and that make them damn good employees.
I'm sure a majority of companies will say they value their employees for who they are as individuals; that if I went through the motions and played the game correctly my would-be employer will say they value my authenticity. But if I have to play a game to become an employee, I can only assume they don't really know the meaning of the word.
P.S. If you're hiring and this sounds like you, I'm available in May.