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David J. Smith
In career exploration, we often think we have a clear understanding of the needs of the job we are considering. Our understanding might come from a posted description or one shared privately with us. This can result in our assuming that what is written is all there is. We take the description and compare it to our own background and strengths, much like a checklist. That is not an inherently poor strategy especially if you have nothing else to go on. But it has its shortcomings, which can result in our excluding jobs we might otherwise consider.
In their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (Knopf 2016) Bill Burnett and Dave Evans of Stanford University’s Life Design Lab offer an approach that encourages the job seeker to “design” a strategy, rather than the traditional approach where one must “fit” into what is offered. They encourage seekers to vision their future based on their interests, aspirations, and the abilities that they might develop. They point out that generic descriptions tend to populate job listings designed by those who know little about the job (often human resources staff). And that the skills requested could be historical, that is, based on the previous holder. You might see yourself as a fit based on what is written, but would fail to consider the possibilities of learning new skills and making future contributions. Unintentionally, you are taking a retrospective view, rather than a prospective one.
Finding the right fit between “you” and the “job” is important. But you want to find work that not only gives you the chance to apply what you know to meet the employer’s current needs, but also allows you to contribute to challenges of the future. This is what employers want, but don’t always ask for in a description. The employer will want you to accomplish certain tasks, but they will also want you to grow with the job and offer talents to confront future challenges.
This means that applying for a job demands some prognosticating about the future. What are the future trends, challenges, and insights of the field or industry that you can demonstrate a need for in the coming weeks, months, and years? This might be a delicate thing to explore in a cover letter. You don’t want to give the employer the impression that they are arrogant and not recognizing the present reality. (You don’t want to come of as a “smart aleck”!). Thus, presenting your ideas in tactful diplomatic, and modest ways are best. It is important to always acknowledge the good work that your future employer is doing before engaging any type of critique.
So what then is a good fit? Is it like a glove: tight, contoured, and clings to your hand? Or is it more like scarf? Gloves you will only use when the weather demands it, but a scarf will be used year round. A scarf can be used in many ways: around your neck, as a head covering, and even as a pillow. Many bring a scarf with them always; keep one at their office, or in their backpack in case of a need that was unexpected. A scarf anticipates new opportunities and the changing “climate.” While a glove is limited, a scarf is not, and can flexibly respond to the needs of the present and the future. It is by its nature an article of clothing that exudes creativity and innovation.
Think of your fit as that of a scarf not a glove. Present yourself in that way and an employer will see the potential of how you might both contribute and learn in their organization. In turn, it will be a more beneficial experience, and a more stylish one!
David J. Smith is a career coach focusing on the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields, and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working on Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He can be reached at email@example.com.