I got trashed in a job interview, and now my self-esteem is gone!

The V.P. seemed to take personal delight in tearing me apart.

Published December 10, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I graduated college two years ago and landed in a less-than-stellar economic climate to find a job. I went to a good school, got excellent grades (I graduated with honors), and have a considerable amount of work experience for someone my age. Still, I've had a ridiculous amount of difficulty finding work -- mostly there's too much competition, and someone out there is perfectly suited for the position I'm vying for, as opposed to being "well-suited" like I am.

I've struggled not to take this personally. I interview well (if I can get to that stage), my résumé is excellent, as are my references, and I honestly don't think I'm reaching too far over my head for positions I don't have a chance of getting. I've tried to abandoned all pride -- I just want to pay the bills and perhaps go for a nice dinner out (and maybe some new shoes ... I love shoes).

Recently, I signed up with a temping agency and received a two-week-long position as an administrative assistant for a V.P. of a major company. I loved the climate there and wanted to stay. I asked the right questions, took notes, and was told by numerous people that I was doing an excellent job -- my assignment was extended for two more weeks. The V.P. in question has always been a bit notorious for being difficult, but soon he and the company's recruiter were asking me to apply for the job permanently. I was thrilled.

I walked into the interview confidently (after all, I'd been with the company a month already, and the other two candidates didn't seem to impress) and things started out well enough. But soon the interview turned into an explanation of why I wasn't going to get the job. My résumé was dissected, as were my answers to questions. At one point, the V.P. even used my responses as evidence for why I wasn't qualified. He explained that I lacked maturity (i.e., at 24 I'm too young) and my work experience didn't really match up to what he was looking for (what little experience I had, since my "career has been so short"). He repeatedly said how I was the same age as his daughter. And with regard to everyone at the company rooting for me? "I always go with the underdog," he answered. In the end, I felt like an idiot for even thinking I had a chance at the job.

I left the interview shocked and near tears. The V.P. failed to outline anything I had done wrong -- instead he took a deeply personal, condescending tone. I'm still a little stunned. I thought things were finally turning around for me professionally. I'm still scheduled to remain at the job site for two more weeks (at the V.P.'s request) and since I'm strapped for cash, I agreed to stay.

The problem is, my self-esteem is shot. When I left school, I had so many aspirations (I'd be a journalist, or a writer, or go to law school), but the work and the money just weren't available, so I figured I'd set my sights lower. But even after abandoning all my dreams, I still can't get a job shuffling paper. What's wrong with me? How can I have faith in myself again? How I can get my dreams back? I can't even get a retail job!

Trashed by the V.P.

Dear Trashed,

Success does not prepare one well for failure. After spending four years in a university with adults whose role it was to help you, you suddenly encounter in business people who don't give a shit about you and who even take a little glee in knocking you down a peg. Their role is not to nurture you but to exploit you, so they don't have to pretend that you are the most important person in the room, that you are "the future of America," or even that you have any value to them at all. You're there like a pauper to sell your labor, and it's a buyer's market.

Sure, if all goes well, you never notice that you've graduated from an institution of nurturance to one of Darwinian competition. If, through the cold calculus of chance you find you've barely picked the bits of ivy from your sweater before you win your junior apprentice assistantship at Acme Imperial Enterprises -- and you notice, How nice, that paneling is genuine oak! -- it will seem as though your education was the most splendid preparation for adult life one could wish for. But if you suffer like most of us the series of baffling rejections and setbacks that form the curriculum of genuine postgraduate learning, you eventually get the point. I for one went straight from a graduate program in creative writing to the mailroom of Western Electric, and my subsequent career was distinguished only for its incoherence.

Let us imagine what you were thinking as this business asshole worked out his infantile fears on you and exercised whatever lizard-brain ego defenses he has erected during his ascent to the unimpressive middle rungs of commerce: "This guy would never last in my university! Where is his respect for others? Where is his sense of fairness? Where is his logic? Where is his concern for merit over presentation? His arguments make no sense! How can he possibly be in a responsible position?"

Such questions torture many of us who go from relative academic success to rejection in business, but they are irrelevant.

I'm not saying that you won't eventually figure out that it was your Miami hairstyle or your Boston accent or your failure to wipe your feet that set off this troglodyte V.P., or that this was actually a test in which you were supposed to defend yourself like a contestant on "The Apprentice." But to the extent that you now begin to ingest the lessons of business, you will progressively learn to deal with a world that isn't based on reason and merit but on the anarchic whims of power, where performance isn't measured in the quality of workmanship but in the manipulation of perception. And that itself is a kind of loss: Once you learn the game, you're one of them!

You were particularly vulnerable because you were applying for an "assistant's" job, the requirements for which are vague -- will you fit in? are you well liked? etc. In applying for such a job, you're at the mercy of prognostications made by men ill-equipped to foretell even the contents of their own sandwiches. At least if you had, say, a welding credential...

So, in addition to getting off my chest my continuing rage at the conformist culture of mediocrity one encounters in the American workplace, I will say this: There's nothing quite like having a real skill. If at all possible, make your entry-level job one in which, even at a low level, you produce something tangible: for example, the proofing or editing of copy or the production of tangible new knowledge by, say, conducting phone interviews or doing research. That is much better than simply arranging the movement of suits from business-class seat to boardroom chair, in my opinion. The relevant motto here is not, I believe, "Bring coffee to power." You need a productive skill independent of their notions of who you are. Dig? If you cannot land a job producing things yourself, then find work assisting those who do produce things, so that you can learn.

Hey, I'm not saying it's easy, or that this advice will help you succeed in the job interview. My view, contrary to those who write books about how to succeed in interviews, is that interviews are a form of carefully choreographed insanity in which people in positions of marginal power play out anarchic and unconscious fantasies and call it "decision making." All I'm saying is, while you're failing to get job after job, you might as well fail to get jobs that you want and that would be worthwhile if you were, by some quirk of a briefly benevolent God, to be hired.

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