By Douglas B. Richardson, Certified Master Coach
The late, great psychoanalyst Karen Horney once warned about "the tyranny of the shoulds." That is, the oppressive influence of people who are happy to tell you what to want, what to think and what to do…usually based on what they think and do. Parents, no matter how well meaning, are common tyrants. So are spouses, drinking buddies, BFFs, and, of course, experts. Why do we listen to experts? Because they're wise, right? They're knowledgeable and experienced. Well…aren't they?
Perhaps we only give pundits this expert status because we need an authoritative voice to lean on. This is particularly true in chaotic times, when we all crave a clear voice who claims to see the big picture. Look at today's job market: when thrust from the certainty of steady employment into a job search in terrible economic conditions, many job seekers experience a terrifying loss of control. No matter how flexible, adventurous or risk-tolerant they may be, or how many different jobs they've had, few feel confident that they've mastered all the essential job search techniques or have all the answers. So they look for help.
It's hardly surprising that many candidates hunger for guidance, structure and reassurance from job-search experts. They wander the Careers section of the bookstores, drawn to brightly-colored books with words like "Sure-fire," "Guaranteed," and "Infallible" in the title. They seek wisdom from countless bloggers. They read articles on employment trends and tactics, which often describe the adventures of four or five individuals whose stories are supposed to illustrate situations and conclusions that are relevant to everyone. They gobble up the career-guru sound bites on Oprah and NPR, looking for the key to the One True Way to conduct the most effective job search.
Seeking advice from experts is important when acquiring any skill. However, all too many job seekers blindly trust those confident voices who claim to be the font of all knowledge. Many mature and world-wise executives, lawyers, scientists, professionals and other proven achievers suddenly put their independent judgment on the shelf, abandon the lessons learned from their own life experience and bind themselves religiously to a stranger's one-size-fits-all recipe for success.
Happily, much of that advice is sound, based on the broad, generic experience of countless job-seekers. Sometimes, however, even confidently-worded counsel is unrealistic, naïve, overgeneralized – or even just plain dumb. Sometimes it ignores the way real people behave in the real world, or sidesteps the enormous variety and complexity of jobs, roles, opportunities, needs, styles and people in the job market. In other cases, bogus advice plays on anxious job-seekers' desire for shortcuts to success by asking them to buy into a "revolutionary," "state-of-the-art" or breakthrough fad, gimmick, trick or shtick guaranteed to produce instant, near-magical results ("Shh! Don't tell…No one else knows about this or has ever thought of it before!").
There Is No "They"
Prudent job-seekers learn how to recognize the words and phrases that signal overgeneralized advice. Watch out, for example, for the stern voice of the omnipresent but ever-invisible They, as in, "They say your resume must never be longer than a page (or two pages, or typed in Helvetica or laid out in a functional format)." Or, "They hate it when men wear brown suits to interviews."
In fact, these mythical band of rule-makers called "they" are really just an attempt to summarize a lot of conflicting data into a more manageable form – like when the stock market is characterized as a bull or a bear. Invoking the moral imperative of "they" is often a cop-out: instead of using your own judgment about how to handle a situation, you just substitute a simple rule of thumb. In short, "they-think" may be lazy-think. If we systematically substitute generic rules for our own decision-making, we risk becoming pawns of "the generalized other." This sounds like a horrible fate, yet countless job-seekers seek solace from "wise sayings" that offer seemingly simple answers to complicated problems.
Closely related to "they" is that ubiquitous over-generalization, "the job market," as in, "the job market always picks up after Labor Day and New Year's," or "the job market hates functional resumes." The phrase "the job market" is supposed to describe the perspectives and biases of all employers, but of course there is not such thing. Why lump yourself, your goals and your job-search efforts in with those of people whose situations may be completely different? The important thing is your job market – the universe of roles and opportunities relating to what, when and where you do what you do.
The first cousins of "they" and "the job market" are "always" and "never." As in, "always tailor your resume to each ad you answer," and "never write a direct-contact letter longer than a page." Applying such rules blindly and indiscriminately often leads to a counterproductive result. Many older networkers, for example, have been indoctrinated with the conventional wisdom that they should "always meet networking contacts face to face." Yet the tremendous growth of social networking technologies has shown that in many cases, dramatically increased visibility can provide more job-search leverage than mining personal contacts in 20-minute informational interviews. A lot of Boomers and Gen X's are blowing off FaceBook, LinkedIn and Twitter as silly fads or low-content, impersonal communication – and they're missing countless opportunities because of it. Similarly, young, tech-savvy job seekers who think face-to-face meetings are outdated misunderstand where trust and rapport often come from.
As Karen Horney reminds us, the word "should" (and its numerous variations) connotes some great authoritarian moral norm. It's like the voice of a parent: "You should never wear slip-on shoes to an interview" or "you should never set your hair on fire in a stiff breeze." Common "should" variations include, "Ya gotta," "It's crucial that…," "You have to…" and "The only way to…" Many experts derive their authority from their tone of voice, not the accuracy of their observations. Job seekers must learn to push back: "You should get off my back and out of my face."
The Base Point
There is nothing wrong with conventional wisdom, per se, as long as we remember that it's intended to serve as a starting point, not a conclusion. Use it as a basis for your own judgments and common sense, not as a substitute for them. Job-search generalizations tell us about broad patterns, trends or theories; they don't guide us what to do in every situation.
Job seekers often ask me to review their resumes and cover letters. To my chagrin, many of these candidates use the same basic resume or cover letter for all situations – ads, personal referrals, internet listings, etc. And where do these breathless bits of prose come from? Often they are parroted word-for-word from some off-the-shelf guide to killer cover letters or a generic template. Model letters and resumes are supposed to be just that: starting-off points for your own individualized style, tone and content. Still, plenty of sophisticated professionals who have been crafting their own business letters for years take these generic suggestions as job-search gospel, copying them word-for-word.
Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor, CareerJournal.com, for over 20 years.