The Strategic Way to Be Yourself in a Job Search

Derek Attig offers three suggestions on how to strike a balance between being real and being professional -- and figuring out what that even means -- when talking to potential employers.

August 19, 2019
 
 
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"Just be yourself."

It's probably one of the most common pieces of advice out there and seems pretty straightforward. But when it comes to a job search, it's not as simple as it sounds.

Looking for a job can raise messy identity questions that make it hard to figure out who the "you" is that you're supposed to just be. And that can make it feel even more like you don't have any control over your own narrative. I've met with graduate students almost every day for years, and I've seen how such questions of identity can stymie their career development and complicate their job searches.

One consistent source of stress in this area is uncertainty about how to strike a balance between being real and being professional -- and figuring out what that even means -- when talking to potential employers. You probably wouldn't open a cover letter or start an interview in full-on confession mode: "I'm an emotional wreck with a doctorate who isn't sure what I want in life but who needs a job that pays enough to cover rent while I figure it out." But something as empty and bloodless as "I am a skilled professional who will achieve key performance indicators if hired by your esteemed firm" isn't a great idea either.

So what else is there? How do you find a middle ground between sounding like an oversharing voiceover or a boring robot? One possibility is an approach that we might call, borrowing a phrase from the fields of marketing and leadership studies, "strategic authenticity."

Strategic authenticity is a way to be yourself in a particular situation and toward a particular end. It's not about who you are forever but who you are right here, right now.

As I have seen in my work with graduate students and Ph.D.s, engaging strategic authenticity in a job search can allow you to reclaim some power and defuse the crises of confidence and identity that the process often creates. It does that by shifting the identity questions involved from the large and intractable ("Who am I?") to the immediate and actionable ("What do I want or need right now, and how can I talk about that here?"). It acknowledges that who "you" are always partly depends, in both good and challenging ways, on when, where and with whom you are at any particular moment.

Indeed, strategic authenticity can help you avoid potential problems -- of both the confessional voiceover and humorless robot variety -- and take on the challenge of "being yourself" with confidence and care. It's an approach that allows you to keep your focus on professional contexts and decide on what terms to share personal details.

So what does strategic authenticity look like? One illustration can be found in a somewhat peculiar letter that Robert Pirosh sent to movie studios in 1934:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "V" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned, and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

I won't deny that the letter's a little wacky. It's very much a product of its time (and also of its author's privilege), and most people wouldn't write a cover letter exactly like this one today. In fact, it violates a bunch of common cover letter advice. All but one of the sentences starts with "I." It includes seemingly irrelevant personal details. It talks about quitting a job. It contains the word "burp." But, in fact, the way the letter playfully subverts our contemporary expectations of the job search lets us see strategic authenticity in action.

And it can serve as a potential source of inspiration for grad students and others struggling to "be themselves" during a job search. In the remainder of this article, I will use Pirosh's letter to outline three tactics you can use to be strategically authentic as you pursue the next steps in your own career.

Be (a part of) yourself. When I get to the end of Pirosh's letter, I feel like I have a clear sense of who he is. Which is surprising, in a way, because he actually doesn't include much specific information about himself and his background, beyond a brief history of his past couple of years smushed into the second paragraph. Fully three quarters of the letter is just about some words he likes.

But that's actually exactly how Pirosh maintains control of his narrative: by only giving you part of it. At the end of the letter, I believe that Pirosh is passionate about language and wants a chance to use it in creative and maybe strange ways. That's probably not his whole self. Maybe he wanted to become a professional pétanque player, but a broken finger derailed his dreams. Or maybe he spent a few years in graduate school before deciding it wasn't for him. Those might be part of the whole of "Robert Pirosh," but they aren't the part of him that aligns with his target and his audience in this letter. So they aren't the parts he shows.

In your job search, employers want to know what motivates you and to hear that you are legitimately excited about an opportunity. But that doesn't mean they need a panoramic view of your entire psychic landscape. No one on the other side of a job search is owed every piece of you, and it's much more in your interest to zoom in and crop.

So ask what part of "you" is truly excited about the job, or what part of the job you are excited about, and speak to that with natural enthusiasm.

Tell and show. You need to go beyond just saying you're excited, however. At the very start of the letter, Pirosh pivots from a relatively narrow statement about himself -- "I like words" -- into a vivid demonstration, not just description, of what that actually means. Imagine if, instead of the first paragraph, Pirosh had written "I am passionate about words. I write interesting sentences that people like to read." How blah. The message might be the same, but the meaning is completely different.

During your job search, you'll probably end up making lots of declarations about yourself, whether in cover letters or in response to interview questions like, "What kind of leader are you?" Once you've decided your strategy for what part of "you" to highlight, you need to make it feel real. What would be your version of "I like words," and how could you make it vivid and specific?

That doesn't mean piling on words like "passion" or "excited" or "honored." It means showing that part of you in action. If you say you're a storyteller, for example, tell a story. Don't just say you're good at juggling projects. Let them really see the organized chaos of teaching two classes while finishing a dissertation and running a grad student organization.

Even when what you say is true, it can take strategy and effort to make true things sound true. So find your own fat buttery words and make them shine.

Find a voice. The tone of Pirosh's letter is a balancing act. It's playful, but it's also extremely precise. It feels casual, but it's carefully constructed. It wanders amiably while also moving confidently from "I like words" to "May I have a few with you?" It feels authentic while being strategically shaped and targeted.

The voice of the letter is also, however, very much Pirosh's, and you shouldn't just adopt it wholesale. If you want to be strategically authentic in your job search, you need to learn how to modulate and command your own voice.

In my experience, job seekers tend to default to a sort of rigid and stilted formality that feels unnatural to them -- and also to employers. While it may not make sense to dial back the formality as much as Pirosh does, and not everyone has the privilege to do so, there may be benefits to letting some of your own playfulness and verve peek through.

Try, for example, switching up where you start. Instead of beginning your cover letter with "I am writing to apply for the position of [Job Title] at [Company Name]," try your variation on "I like words." Rather than open your elevator pitch with your name and degree program, start with the story of an experience that has shaped you. Begin an interview story in media res, and then flash back to provide context.

Another aspect of tone to consider is confidence. Many of the graduate students and Ph.D.s whom I work with struggle to project confidence during a job search. But confidence -- or the appearance of confidence -- is an important tool, not least because people tend to mistake it for competence. Graduate school often conditions students to focus on their weaknesses and feel discomfort talking about their strengths, and that shapes not just what you say but how you say it.

To address this, you don't have to suddenly transform into someone who's totally comfortable talking themselves up. Instead, be strategic about it. What would you sound like if you cut hedging, qualifying phrases from your job-search vocabulary? How could you use more subconscious communication strategies to help your job-search "you" appear confident even when the rest of you is feeling kinda meh?

With the help of his letter, Pirosh landed a job at MGM. And, 15 years after he wrote "I like words," he won an Academy Award for screenwriting. I can't guarantee you'll win an Oscar if you follow the strategies I outlined above, but you'll take steps toward figuring out how to "just be yourself" in your job search, finding control and confidence along the way.

Bio

Derek Attig is director of career development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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