When you are searching for your first job, how far should you go to get that job?
Occasionally, I get asked for advice by people who have just graduated high school or college about how to best hunt for a job. For those people who have a clear idea of what kind of work they want to do or those who have some experience doing that kind of work already, it’s much simpler for them to be clear on what kind of jobs they are hunting for or what to say during job interviews. For those who find themselves uncertain of what kind of work they’d like to do, the process can be much more challenging.
“I’m not sure what I want to do,” a recent graduate I’m calling Robin told me as she was about to set off on a job hunt. “I’ll do anything. I just want a job.”
“You might not want to write that in any cover letters you send out,” I responded. Instead I advised that she tailor the letter to the person and company she was writing. “Express an interest in the type of work that person does or that’s done at the company.”
Robin paused. “Oh,” she said. “You mean fake it until I make it.”
I’ve long hated that phrase. It suggests that somehow you are expected to pretend to know how to do something you don’t. It reeks of suggesting you misrepresent your skills and abilities to get a job.
“No,” I told Robin. “Don’t be dishonest about what you want to do or what you know how to do. Don’t fake anything.”
Robin pointed out, however, that it’s important to appear confident in a cover letter and during a job interview. And she’s correct. But confidence does not have to cross over into misrepresenting what you know how to do.
The right thing is to avoid sounding wishy-washy or desperate in a cover letter, but to be clear that you’ve done some research on the company and the person you’re writing. Expressing an interest in the type of work the company and the person you’re writing does is not faking it. Appearing to be knowledgeable because you’ve done your homework about the job is an honest way to exude confidence.
Granted, Robin really might not know what type of work she wants to do or where she wants to do it. But that’s hardly what anyone looking to hire someone wants to hear. We do not need to share all or any of our insecurities about work with prospective employers.
If after doing some research on a company Robin decides she truly has no desire to do the kind of work that company does and she has other options, then she shouldn’t try to work there. Doing that kind of research is part of the process that results in narrowing in on the type of job she might want to do.
Finding a job doesn’t require faking anything, but it can be hard work. But if that hard work turns into a job you truly enjoy doing, it’s worth the effort.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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