“Don’t take it personally.” The phrase, often uttered in an apologetic tone or as a sort of disclaimer, is often used to provide solace or advice to those who have encountered a stumble in the dance of life. It is the reaction nearly everyone had when a friend and recent graduate with a ‘perfect track record’ and Ivy League education got rejected from nearly every job she applied to.
There is no doubt that the current job market is tough and that for young people, especially recent graduates who are in the habit of succeeding at what they set out to accomplish, this can lead to bruised egos upon receipt of a first ever letter of rejection (or multiple letters), accompanied by feelings of shame or even embarrassment. A common way of reacting to such feelings is by seeing oneself as unworthy. In order to prevent this negative frame of mind on our part, we are reminded by well-intentioned individuals (usually family and friends) who are close to us that not everyone sees the world we do, that there are different perspectives, and that most likely the perspective of the recruiter (the agent of rejection) was flawed. All of this encapsulated in a simple phrase, “don’t take it personally.”
But is this view so helpful, and does it really bring us much further than the first reaction, that is seeing oneself as flawed and unworthy? It is definitely true that not taking rejection personally can prevent us from wallowing in self-pity and inspire us to continue searching. What it does not prevent us from is being upset. Instead it alleviates the responsibility and negative feelings directed at ourselves and directs them at someone else (the person working in HR, the company applied to, etc.). But the negative emotions are still there, and in a sense we are left just as vulnerable, for despite a lack of shame and embarrassment, strong feelings remain which make an having an objective viewpoint nearly impossible and can hinder any learning from the experience.
So what is the alternative? Well, what if for one moment we considered the possibility of taking a rejection from a potential employer personally, without having this ruin any good feelings that we have about ourselves (in other words, without lowering our self-esteem). The best way I can think of explaining this is to liken job-hunting to dating. There, I said it, finding a job is akin to finding your next partner, whether (s)he ends up being a temporary fling or the love of your life.
The truth is that any time we jump into a situation in which we hope to succeed, we expose ourselves. We increase our visibility, and as such, our vulnerability to any reactions that such visibility may entail. When we make ourselves known to be single, whether by signing up to a dating site or by starting to accept invitations fro dates, we open ourselves up to being potentially judged by those viewing us or rejected (on the basis of our ‘flaws’) by our invitees.
However, in dating more than elsewhere, individuals seem to be comfortable with taking the middle route expressed before if things don’t work out, without a feeling of upset or negative emotions either at themselves or the other person. The most common explanation used after a failed relationship attempt is that the two individuals ‘just didn’t fit’ or had were incompatible due to differing traits and/or values.
What if we applied the same logic that we use for finding a partner to hunting for jobs? First of all, it is not possible to do anything well without encountering criticism along the way. (Constructive) criticism is what pushes athletes and students forward to become great. Just as a date with a certain person may expose an area of yourself that needs a bit of extra work, a job rejection with a specific bit of critique attached may point you in the right direction for self-improvement. Second of all, and this is perhaps the most important part of the above analogy, there is a great possibility that you and the job you applied for were simply incompatible, and that either the position or the company in general was not a great fit for you.
This is useful knowledge, because every time we encounter someone very much unlike us, or whose values are incompatible with ours, we learn more about ourselves. By taking a job rejection personally, you can learn a bit more about yourself, or at least about the image that you are portraying to a recruiter. As an acquaintance in HR pointed out, recruiters are human and do make mistakes sometimes, but they definitely are not stupid and in general they have their job for a reason and have experience in their field.
In the current economy, top graduates are rarely scouted (which, as a family member who once worked in HR noted, used to be the case), but instead they have to look for themselves for opportunities. This is more difficult, but it can actually be much more rewarding as well. Personally, I am currently embarking on a big sector change after six years of work in another field. As part of this change, I am considering a few different industries to enter, and for each of them I have significantly fewer contacts and information about opportunities than I have in the field I was in before. However, I am seeing this period of my life as a chance to explore, play and try out new things (much like one does when dating). A rejection may mean that I am not what the company I applied to needs at the current moment (due to having too many people with a similar profile, or their search for a specific type of person), or it may mean that the position I applied for or the field I applied in is not the perfect fit for me.
So, on a practical level, what can graduates do to apply the logic explained above and to rid themselves of anxiety and other negative emotions related to potential rejections during a job search? Firstly, the best step one can take is to start early, to give yourself time to explore and have fun looking at various offers (especially if you live in a country in which what you study for your degree is not the sole determining factor in your application). Secondly, upon the receipt of a rejection letter, ask companies for constructive criticism (not all will give it to you, but some are surprisingly good about it) regarding your application. This can help guide you as you continue your search.
Finally, I believe that it’s important for young job seekers to realize that using your network is not a taboo (after all, finding a job is part of the reason why LinkedIn exists). Those who already know you — who know your traits, your strengths and your values — may have good ideas concerning what industry or what type of job would be a good fit for you. So take advantage of the network you have, talk to your friends and ask if they have contacts that could help you, talk to your family (but don’t let them guide your search), use your university and school networks, and casually let slip that you’re on the lookout (or what I call ‘job single’) at social and networking events… you never know who might hand you their card or their number.
So in this journey for the right job for you, don’t be afraid to take it personally, to embrace the feedback you get, and to learn along the way. In the end, you hope to find something that, at least for a while, is a ‘good fit,’ the beginning of a successful relationship. And you will have learned a great deal about yourself, and hopefully even enjoyed yourself, along the way.