Don't Look for Pity When Looking for Work

Low energy, bitter, sad, and angry job candidates need not apply.

Posted Feb 06, 2012

Kelly Egger's WSJ piece titled "Best Networking Tips" is precisely the kind of article I can imagine being dismissed by most readers of PT.

"It's not like this in my world," they might say, if they were the types who believe their world is different from the one inhabited by others.

Or they might say, "This is exactly the kind of shallow, hyper-competitive neo-conservative capitalistic garbage that made me leave my well-paid position at UBS for film school at NYU," although they might not say it quite that way to producers with whom they one day hope to collaborate—not unless they were really, really cute.

And while it's true that many looking for jobs might not have to take workshops on handshaking ("Weak handshakes turn people off, so practice yours with a friend to make sure it's neither bone-crushing nor wimpy"), there were several points in Egger's article job seekers might find useful.

The point that grabbed me by the shoulders, by-passing the handshake stage altogether, was the following: Eggers quotes one of her experts as saying "'Don't tell me that you were out of work for six months because you recently had brain surgery, or because you were laid off.' People are going to feel as if they need to pity you, but you don't want that to be the foundation of a relationship."

Eggers also argues, in the section called "Don't Tell a Sob Story" that "No matter how tough it's been, you need to paint a positive picture when you're making new connections" because—as one of the experts points out—"Potential employers or connections aren't going to bring on people who are down in the dumps just to make them feel better."

Thank you, Ms. Eggers, for saying it—clearly and directly. I've been feeling as if I'm the only one telling the people I know who are looking for work that presenting one's self as a victim, or as one accustomed to tragedy, or even as simply filled with weltschmerz (because who wouldn't be?) is no way to land a job.


Yes, you had a lousy childhood. Yes, you had a rotten relationship throughout grad school or your postdoc or your first job, and that undermined you. Yes, you have insomnia, issues with food, issues with emotional stability. Yes, you are more insecure and less audacious than your peers and have great trepidation facing the page. Yes, what what you would really like to do is write/paint/act but know that teaching pays the bills. Yes, you feel critical discourse is confining and unnatural. Yes, you are, in other words, exactly like everybody else.

Keep it for your friends or for open-mic night if you have to keep it for anywhere. Better yet, use it for your therapy sessions, or for your art, or for the refining fire of your soul's salvation. But don't bring it up in casual conversation with folks in a professional setting.

Eggers' experts say that those doing the hiring "want people who project a good, can-do attitude, and who will be energetic and excited about the position."

Is that so much to ask? Even if you hate the phrase "can-do" (and I-do), it's still worth emphasizing the somehow politically incorrect truth that a low-energy, sad, bitter, frustrated, or angry person is not who anybody wants to have as a colleague. Sure, everybody will feel those emotions at some point, but is that how you want to appear during what is essentially your courtship period with potential new work partners?

I try to help my students and my younger friends understand, as Fran Leibowitz once put it, that—in public, at least, when you're trying to get positive attention—"spilling your guts is just about as attractive as it sounds."

I had an old Russian uncle, a man who (after only four or five vodkas) would take off his shirt to show you the scars from where the bullets hit his chest. "The Cossacks," he would announce.  He became well-known for his stories about how to succeed in the harsh, unforgiving world of commerce which  he said, made battle seem like a picnic.

One of his favorites fables was this: The boss of a company is sitting behind his big polished desk when the secretary buzzes him and says an old friend from his childhood is there and needs to see him. The man enters the office, cap in hand, sits down, and tells his story: how he studied hard but never got recognition, how he worked days and nights but never achieved the rank he deserved, how he was better than his co-workers but how they deceived and cheated him, how he married but his wife was a slight and weak woman who some days couldn't look after their children, who were small and often sickly, and how they lived with her parents who were elderly and now needed more help around the house even for their most basic daily tasks, and how he was still trying to paint and write but since his bout with a terrible flu last year and the gradual loss of sight from his left eye which, as his friend would remember, was the one that always had the tic, it was difficult, and couldn't he, the man's friend, offer him a position? The secretary suddenly comes into the room and says another person is waiting outside. The men shake hands quickly and the supplicant departs. When The Boss is alone with his secretary, she asks "Why did you press the emergency button with your foot for me to come in and interrupt? What was happening?" To which, The Boss replied, "I had to get this guy out of here. He was breaking my heart."

It's not a pretty story but the last time I heard it, I was no more than 8 years old, and I remember it to this day. When somebody I don't know is trying to impress me with misery, I think "I have to get this guy out of here."

If you've got a message, the world wants to hear from you; it really does. But even if the message you're conveying is about tragedy-- or concerns human miser-- the world still doesn't want to hear you cry. Hard a lesson as that is to learn, it's both an essential and a useful one.