You Are Job-Seeking Wrong

Sure, Grandpa may have trudged uphill both ways, fighting off entire packs of ravenous wolves to to and from work each day. But at least he had a job. For many recent grads the commuting woes of yesteryear sound more like the misery of finding employment in the first place.

The truth is that the modern job search can be tough. Even though finding jobs is more convenient than ever before, the process of applying online can be impersonal and deflating. It’s another one of those areas of life where technology has moved so swiftly that we all got caught in a current of convenience without taking any time to think about what new headaches might be lurking downstream.

In theory the online job application is a win-win for everyone involved. Companies advertise their job and instantly get a list of curated applicants to choose from. Job-seekers can automatically find out about neat jobs all over the area that are tailored to their skills and can instantly put their resume in the stack.

The problem is that avoiding the inconveniences of in-person interactions and timely rejection results in a much more shallow process.

For starters, applying to jobs in the modern era means that most of us must sanitize our social media before applying for jobs. We carefully optimize our resumes to include just enough key words to pass robotic filters, but not too many that it becomes incoherent to the human that will ultimately read it. We willingly apply to insufferably enthusiastic job postings, deal with robocallers and scammers scraping our resume information from sites with shady privacy policies, and rarely ever get the courtesy of a email response indicating rejection.

Maybe these gripes are a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to apply to jobs from the comfort of our pajamas, but they can really take a toll after weeks or months of second-guessing your self-worth.

Luckily this is not the only way to find work. After a year of hard lessons in my own search to find employment, here are my thoughts on alternative paths to landing that first career job.

Online Job Applications are a Waste of Your Time

Unless you read a job posting online and it sounds like a verbatim retelling of your life story, take a pass. There are more productive ways of job seeking. You have options.

In many respects filling out online job applications is a lot like online dating.

  1. There will always be a minority of applicants that will have extreme success online and if you judge yourself by those impossible standards you will feel like a failure.
  2. Your average applicant can find success, but it’s basically just a numbers game. Persist and you will eventually find a match.
  3. You could lower your standards a bit, couldn’t you?
  4. One side typically puts in a disproportionate amount of effort hoping to woo the other one.
  5. You might get personally rejected, but usually ghosting is more likely.
  6. When you finally get a match– congratulations, it’s time for an awkward phone call to scope things out before anyone risks an in-person meeting.

Applying for jobs online is like dating online. Sure, somebody somewhere is stumbling into a mutually fulfilling, long-term relationship from it. But on the whole it is a shallow process motivated by short-term thinking on both sides. There is much more growth in the old-fashioned, trial-by-fire approach.

If you put in the effort, you can eventually find a job online. The key here is that you will not be growing as a person throughout the process, so you are really just wasting your own time. On the contrary, endlessly filling out applications might actually negatively impact your personal development as you second-guess your self-worth and slowly begin applying for jobs you aren’t interested in, but would feel lucky to have.

The good news is that the solution is simple. When searching for work, like in dating, the most productive use of your time towards a mutually-beneficial relationship is through the trial-by-fire that is genuine, face-to-face interaction full of confidence based on sound qualifications.

The best path to your first career job is through networking. I can feel the eye rolls through the keyboard already, but stick with me here. I am not talking about “Networking” as a hazy notion of passing out business cards in hopes of meeting a hiring manager at an opportune time. The networking I describe here is a series of simple, actionable steps that will put you on a productive path to finding the job you want.

Networking is Actually Easy

What most people don’t understand about networking is that it is more commonly an innate ability than a learned skill. That is precisely why it is so difficult to explain and why most folks that recommend it to others are undoubtedly spewing godawful advice. People with an innate ability to network can no more easily explain how to land a job through people skills than someone with a photographic memory can explain how they memorized a topographic map of Utah.

Networking just kind of happens naturally for extroverted people with powerful friends. So when pressed for how to find a job, they will probably say something vague about showing up to the Friday happy hour with a stack of business cards and a can-do attitude.

Sound familiar?

This gets even more confusing when you ask an introverted person for advice, since they will more often than not regurgitate the same well-intentioned– yet ultimately unhelpful– advice with a few extras thrown in about how to psych yourself up to go charm so-and-so manager over there.

Trust me, networking is not this complicated

No awkward happy hours with job-seekers. No sweaty cold calls to firms in the area. And no more times where an innocent-enough “So what do you do?” spirals into a deeply uncomfortable tale about how your conversation partner is actually another job-seeker that lost his job, followed by his wife leaving him, and now fills the void with booze and collecting stray cats.

Networking is not about growing your network so large that you inevitably run into someone with a cubicle to fill. Networking is about trading good reputations to the mutual benefit of everyone involved.

Here is a direct, four-step process.

  1. Always leave a lasting good impression on everyone you interact with.
  2. Based on those good impressions, make a list of all the people that could vouch for you, especially if they have a reputation that gives them authority to speak on your qualifications. In other words, find the people that would write you the best letter of recommendation for the job you want.
  3. Kindly ask those people, face-to-face, if they know anyone in their network that happens to work in your area of interest. Don’t say you need a job. That’s a burden. You just want to chat over coffee with this person about what it’s like to work at their company doing whatever it is they do. That’s not a burden– that’s something they probably would actually want to do.
  4. Follow through on your meeting. Don’t be unprofessional, but you should be casual. You are not being interviewed. You are the interviewer. Inverviewing, not interrogation. Ask about the industry. Ask about the company. Ask about their story and how they ended up in their role. People love to talk to genuinely interested listeners. If it goes well, be bold and ask if there is a hiring manager you could ask some more questions of.

That’s it. Nothing too complicated, but let’s unpack a bit.

First of all you must understand that your reputation is the currency of networking. Build your reputation around a genuinely impactful work-ethic, intellect, or charisma. If you are in college, seize the opportunity to build relationships with professors and administrators. Professors are usually obligated to talk with you if you show up to office hours. If you land an internship or are already working the same principle applies. Find the people that make decisions and make sure they know who you are and what is special about you.

I should point out that my repeated use of the word “genuine” is intentional. We all know someone that does pretty well for themselves by being a kiss-ass, but that is playing with fire here. Seeing the people around you as a means to an end is not a good long-term strategy since all it takes is one person to sniff out your inauthenticity and news can spread quickly. Asking someone to stick their neck out for you so that you can score a coffee conversation with someone in their network is not a transactional relationship. Nothing throws cold water on a career quite like a lackadaisical reference.

Once you have a list of people that can attest to your strong character the real networking can begin. All you have to do is casually ask those people if they know anyone you can talk to in your area of interest. Maybe your boy scout master has a hiking buddy that owns a geologic survey firm. Maybe your professor’s friend from grad school is looking for someone to help launch a startup. The key here is that you are asking to tap into the networks of people that can objectively vouch for your qualifications. Anything else is nepotism, and that defeats the point of a growth mindset when hunting for work. You want to earn a cool job based on who you are, not whose you are.

Another critical point is that you are not asking if the people in your network have open jobs. Networking is about leveraging reputation against reputation to wiggle your way into conversations with people that have decision-making power. Then you impress them. Not by being some cocksure ass-hat that hits them with the old “I am going to be sitting in your chair in five years” line. You impress them by showing genuine interest in who they are professionally and what they do. You impress them by being a normal, well-adjusted and capable free-agent that wants to be successful. If you have someone with a strong reputation vouching for you, people in their network will listen if for no other reason than out of courtesy to the person that referred you.

Business cards aren’t the trading cards of networking events. Reputations are.

So there you have it.

“Networking” Events

Although I do recommend happy hours, career fairs, and job-seeker’s meetups, you should now realize that those aren’t going to be the most efficient use of your time. Odds are you will not know anyone at a random networking event that can vouch for your redeeming qualities. You have no currency to trade.

The folks that go to networking events go out of obligation (i.e. their company sponsors the event) or they already know several people there and are planning to socialize. They have currency, so you can watch them work the room making withdrawals and deposits introducing one another to new people. It’s like watching speed dating with a surplus of dutiful wingmen. It’s wild.

(As a side note, this is why companies sponsoring meetup events want their employees to bring their friends. Not because they’re wanting a “the more the merrier” vibe. They understand that current employees likely have well-adjusted, employable friends. After all, who would invite anyone other than their token tame and responsible friend to a social event with their boss in attendance?)

Anyways, so until you have several folks that will vouch for you at networking events your best bet is to network one-on-one by using the steps above.

Final Thoughts

If you are discouraged in your job hunt, the problem is almost certainly not a lack of jobs. Unless you’ve got bulletproof credentials or are going into some hyper-specialized field there will always be open spots, save yourself the misery of endlessly typing out your own reputation and find ways to let it precede you in face-to-face meetings with powerful people.

The age-old adage is wrong:

It’s not who you know rather than what you know.

It’s who knows you rather than what you know.

Circa 2019

Logan Frederick - 2019