Earlier this week I enrolled in two workshops at the university Career Center. The “Welcome to the workshop!”-email contained an assignment to be done before the course: I have to ask 5 people from different areas of my life what my biggest talent is, what I talk about most, how I do things and how they feel about my interactions in a group setting. Great.
Apart from not wanting to bother people in my life with this kind of stereotypical “I am enrolled in a job application course”-assignment, I also realised that the answers aren’t going to help me in any way. One person will answer “Sleeping in”, “Too Many Zooz”, “Right before the deadline” and “Group setting? What group setting?”, while the other person will reply to the same questions with “Editing”, “Her zine writing progress”, “Extremely organised” and “Helpful”. The three other people will probably answer something completely different from the previous two, and put together they will most likely paint a (more) complete picture of who I am, but none of this will give anyone enough information to conclude if I am suited to perform a particular job.
The line of thought that just by knowing “who you are” and “always being yourself” you have enough tools to get a job and develop your career, just doesn’t make any sense at all. The only thing that makes less sense is the saying “It’s better to regret things you have done than to regret things you haven’t done”, because that’s just pure nonsense. According to that saying, it would be better to regret stabbing somebody to death than to regret not having stabbed them. When you put it that way, I don’t think there’s many people who’d agree with that. It’s just utter, utter nonsense.
Of course I believe that it’s good to know who you are, I even think that “knowing who you are and why” and (re)evaluating this regularly is one of the most important things in life. When you know what you stand for as a person, it’s easier to filter out who and what you want to spend your time and energy on. I do agree with “being yourself” in this regard: getting a job at a butcher when you’re a vegetarian for example is just not the best idea.
However, “being yourself” is something that is not possible for everyone. If you depend on an environment that is completely different from you and you don’t want to constantly have conflicts or even get ousted, you will have to adapt. There are horrible examples of this dynamic all around, but to keep it in the realm of “work” a personal anecdote: back in the day when I used to work as a secretary, I was only able to be about 3% “me” and I was still the odd one out. Them considering me a “weirdo” actually meant “you have a different education level than we do”, “your private life is different from ours” and of course “you are way more foreign than we are/we are comfortable with”.
Because what usually happens once I enter a room for a job interview and introduce myself as “me” with my obviously-not-from-here foreign last name, is that people already feel that I am “being myself” too much. IF I even get the job interview in the first place, because name based discrimination is a thing.
I believe that anybody who differs from what the norm is in a particular place will recognise this. Of course, the “norm” differs: where in one place being 3% of “yourself” is already overdoing it, in other places 70% “you” is just fine. This is why I think that it would be more realistic to teach people that it is not only important to know who you are, what skills you have, and what you enjoy doing, but to also have them think about how much you are willing AND able to adapt yourself to a certain situation and what your “hard no’s” are.
Because unless you are privileged enough to be somebody whose “me” fits right into the socially accepted average and also be lucky enough that there is an industry for which you are a perfect fit, the whole “be yourself and a job will follow” is not helpful at best and a toxic lie at worst. I would much rather hear the honest truth that my name, my heritage, my personality, my looks, my age, my life up to now, my education and/or my health will be deal breakers for certain employers, than the “Just be yourself, and everything will work out fine!”-blah blah that just ignores reality.
That way I can look at who I am, what my skills are, what I want and what an employer expects of me. This is the only way I can figure out how to make sure that Public Me ™ , a “persona” that as a person “deviating from the norm” I will always have to maintain in one form or another, doesn’t stray to far from Actual Me ™. “Being yourself”, if even possible at all, is a luxury unfortunately not available to everyone. And the first step in the process of changing that, is to at least acknowledge this in these type of job application courses and to provide realistic advice on how to deal with these issues.