Job search going nowhere? Stop selling yourself and start being yourself

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Thea was not a happy camper. She was in the middle of a job search that felt like being stuck in the 26th mile of a marathon. She just didn’t get it. Why was it so hard? She was willing to do almost anything.

Thea arrived early to our session, laid her resume and a few cover letters out on the table and sighed. “I guess I’m just not selling myself enough. I’ve been at this so long, I’m starting to forget what I like to do and even what I’m good at. Fundraising is competitive and I just don’t know how to stand out from the pack.”

In a few minutes of looking at her materials, I got a hit on what was going on.

“I have some good news for you. I don’t think that the issue is that you’re not selling yourself enough, but rather that you’re selling yourself too much. You’re trying to persuade people that you’re right for the job rather than grounding yourself in your value, and matter-of-factly explaining what’s truly drawing you as well as how you can utilize the one-of-a-kind combination of your gifts, experience, accomplishments, curiosities, ideas and more to contribute in particular ways.”

Thea looked at me with a mixture of shock and awe.

“Wow, I thought that you’re supposed to sell yourself to stand out. That’s always felt crummy to me—almost like I need to be someone else to get a job. To exaggerate my experience and skills and be über confident. It’s a relief to hear that’s not the case. But I don’t get it, what are you supposed to do? How can you possibly be a leader when you need a job?”

You don’t need to sell yourself

Selling is rooted in what I call the “Funnel Principle,” funneling yourself into what exists rather than carving out your own niche and building dynamic bridges between you and other people and organizations. Selling often interferes with making a good impression and can leave you feeling exhausted from trying so hard to fit into something that might not be right for you.

Instead, it’s much more useful to operate from the “Snowflake Principle:” know your value and understand that there is no one out there exactly like you. We all have an inimitable set of strengths, interests and much more that naturally make us stand out, no matter where we are in our career. If you increase your ability to specifically, yet briefly describe your particular uniqueness and how you can contribute, if there is a real fit, it’s pretty likely you’ll be called in for an interview. It may take extra time up-front, but in the end, it will save you effort and energy.

Does all this snowflake talk sound a wee bit flakey and easier said than done? Likely, because most of us undergo intense “programming” about what’s possible in our work-life. We’re taught:

  • To take a passive role in our career and take whatever comes our way. The fact is that in today’s job market, even if you feel like you need to take any job, it’s difficult to do that because most employers are looking for candidates who closely match the skills and experience they’re seeking. Believe it or not, it’s often quicker to get a job that truly reflects your snowflake nature (or, at least, some of it) than to funnel yourself into any, old job.
  • We’re bragging or self-involved if we take the time to really get to know and then articulate all that we have to offer.
  • We should be one person at home and another at work—the best way to get a job is to downplay our quirks, not celebrate them.

So how do you de-program to get and keep a job that you love?

Rethink your role in your career. Consider the possibility that you have more power and influence in your career than you think and that whatever your personality and skills, you arethe leader of your work-life. It takes courage to do this, especially, when, like Thea, you’ve been in a long search and you’ve gotten the message that you should do whatever you can to persuade the world of your worth.

Understand what makes you unique. I suggest going “old-school” and buying a small notebook that you keep with you and write in daily. Create categories of observation that span both your personal and professional life and get at your skills, what motivates you, and even what scares you—knowing the full range of who you are will allow you to access more of your resources and to message your value-add with precision. Useful questions to research include:

  • What is your mission? Your values and priorities?
  • What are your passions and interests, skills, experience, accomplishments, and ideas?
  • What is your working style (how you do your work)?
  • What is your ideal job and day?
  • What are the people, places, organizations, ideas etc. that you would like to learn more about?
  • How do you most want to contribute in the next three months, year, five and 10 years?
  • What makes you afraid, frustrated, sad, happy, motivated, or avoidant?

Take a couple of moments each day to make one entry for one category, and be specific! For example, you might pick the “ideal job” category and note that you feel very energized (a 9 out of 10) after facilitating meetings for youth organizers to get support around burnout because you love helping people to create balance in their work-life and you believe passionately in activating youth leadership.

Then, on Friday of each week, take about five minutes to review your fieldwork and notice any emerging themes. On the last Friday of each month, give yourself about 15-20 minutes to review the last few weeks and metabolize what you’re learning. I encourage you to share your research and let people know what you’re discovering—you’re likely to inspire them and also get better at talking about what makes you unique.

Get feedback from others. Once you’ve done some work in your “field notebook,” contacting close colleagues or friends for their feedback can add to the depth of how you articulate your worth and make it easier to avoid the “selling trap.” Tell people you’re honing how you express your strengths and one-of-a-kind capacities and ask for gut responses. Compare and contrast what your peanut gallery shares with your own research. If something feels off, let it go, but often, others provide a useful, additional layer to self-knowledge.

Integrate and apply your research. As you gather information, create space to integrate it into what you’re saying and writing about yourself in your job search. For example, you might want to take 10-20 minutes (or more if your creativity is jogged by larger work sessions) each week to work on your resume, cover letter, networking share, interviewing preparation or LinkedIn profile.

When Thea took the time to reflect on her authentic gifts and skills, she realized that what she was really good at and passionate about was finding powerful ways to message the mission of organizations, not so much the bread and butter tasks of fundraising. So, she decided to shift the ‘Summary of Expertise’ at the top of her resume and LinkedIn profile from a fairly generic development spin detailing her success at grant writing to a more nuanced, yet brief description of how she utilizes grants to help organizations communicate their value to their clients and community.

Acknowledge and embrace your emotions. Our emotions can give us important information about what we truly do and don’t want, so it’s critical to heed their call. Make a commitment to get quiet for a few minutes a day and notice your thoughts and feelings without judging them. Building your ability to observe your busy-bee mind (we all have one!), will allow you to really get to know and then share yourself. It’s also useful to engage in some lively “self-talk” and remind yourself that job searches and jobs can be hard—some days you may feel defeated and less like a snowflake than snowed under! That’s perfectly okay. Let yourself feel your feelings, get support from friends, family, a coach or other mentor when you need to and really listen to what your feelings are telling you.

You may be wondering what happened to dear Thea…Well she underwent a mini-revolution! Once she realized she enjoyed communications more than fundraising and saw that she needed to take a much more active role in her search, she got involved in a campaign right up her “messaging ally,” which made it much easier to apply for and finally get a great communications job.

Are you ready to become a work-life leader? Let me know what steps you take!

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Photo Credit: Aleksandar Mijatovic, Shutterstock

About Author

Cathy is a leadership/career coach, group facilitator, writer, and social experimentrice. Her quest is to better nurture connection and new ways of living and working in our hyper fast-paced, always connected but strangely disconnected society. Through her business, Self-Leadership Strategies, she has helped hundreds of individuals –from CEO’s to artists –realize their personal and professional goals. Her writing and commentary has appeared in such venues as Frontline Feminism, The Washington Post, and Super Girls Speak Out. She has an MSW from Smith College and a BA in Psychology from Wesleyan University. She can be reached at cathy@self-leadershipstrategies.com and self-leadershipstrategies.com.

20 Comments

  1. Pingback: Need career advice? Send us your questions! | Idealist Careers

  2. I think this article is just what I needed to get me re-energized and re-focused on my job search. Thank you for writing this. Your words helped me to put things in perspective.

    • Cathy Wasserman on

      You’re so welcome and I am so glad that my article was useful to you, much good energy to you as you navigate your next steps! Cathy

  3. Fantastic article, and so timely. It reinforces my job search strategy! I love the idea of keeping a field book. Thank you!

    • Cathy Wasserman on

      You are so welcome!! I’m so glad that it reinforces you on your journey, lots of good wishes to you! Cathy

  4. Although I am not looking for a ‘JOB’, there is good advice here, for those that are. These methods are also useful for those thinking of starting their own enterprise, or just assessing where they are in life. Very well written. “It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.” ~K.T. Jong

    • Cathy Wasserman on

      I’m so glad that you enjoyed the article, Chas and thank you so much for the nice feedback and for sharing the great and very true quote! I wish you all the best on your path! Cathy

  5. I’ve been struggling for 3 years to find a job reflecting my skills, passion, and education. I decided to conduct some surveying to see what commonalities are there in people getting the jobs I am not. LinkedIn makes this very easy to see who got your job. A few things stood out.

    1.) They were younger
    2.) Had less education
    3.) Had less experience
    4.) Were white
    5.) Volunteered at this institutions before getting hired on-board.

    I currently work overnight in a position that’s dead-end and this has decimated the family. I have decided to volunteer as well, which has made things worse, but I am still keep getting looked over. I’m at my wits end. I have no idea what I’m doing wrong and I feel lost as well.

    I’m passionate, smart, personable, articulate, professional. I can’t do anything about the first 4 commonalities, unless I lie. So I’m just doing what I can. I feel like I’m crashing over and over again. I have easily applied to over 3000 jobs in 3 years. Nothing.

    • Reginald, I know exactly how you feel. I’m in a similar boat. I’ve been applying for the past 2+ years. I’m currently employed at a worldwide company and I have gotten nowhere. I often wonder because of where I work and because I’m a minority, people often wonder why would I want to leave such a reputable company? I read an article on this and I guess that may have spunned the doubt.

      Best of luck to everyone!

    • Cathy Wasserman on

      Hi Reginald, I am so sorry it has been so incredibly difficult in your search! It sounds like you have taken some excellent steps and been very thorough and you are facing some very unfortunate dynamics in the work world, which can make it extremely challenging. Please feel free to email me at cathy@self-leadershipstrategies.com to set up a time to chat about possible additional next steps! Cathy

    • polona north on

      Dear Reginald

      I am in a dead end job as well and I am trying to get a new postion. I have been looking and applying for the last 3 years. I did get few interviews but no job as yet. I love Kathy’s advise of not trying to sell my self so hard. One comes accross too desparate & too eager and less confident then if you are yurself . I feel happier now nowing that there is somwhere a job that eventualy will come my way but I have to be patient and rather enjoy my life then feel constant deapair of not being able to achieve a better positon workwise.

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