Don’t Be Yourself, Be Who They Want You to Be

Courtesy of Larry Kesslin.
Mask store in Venice.

By Bryce Bower, Co-editor

I find business culture to be uncomfortable sometimes. I think I feel this way because so many small details have to be precisely in place, and first impressions are so important. During Foundations, a staff member told me I had to move my name badge from the left side to the right side of my suit-coat. People judge your character based on how your hand feels in theirs. Is the grip assertive enough? Is it too aggressive? Too meek? According to an article by Forbes, you have seven seconds to make a first impression. I think this is why people are so concerned with the little things. But are they too concerned?

There are so many little things to keep track of. Proper eating etiquette in America requires one to move the fork to the left hand, pick up the knife in the right hand, cut a small piece, put the knife down, pick up the food with the fork, then transfer the fork from the left hand to the right, then finally– you are allowed to take a bite. I have seen complex software problems solved in fewer steps.

Modern hiring managers. Courtesy of Spunky Bong

When writing a resume I feel like a spin doctor working for a political party. You can take any work experience and say you learned literally any skill from it. This seems a necessary craft that one must learn to stay competitive as a potential hire. Companies scan cover letters and resumes with robots now, and if you don’t include the exact words they are looking for your resume may never be seen by actual humans. There are so many things a potential hire has to “be” during the interview, it feels like a person has to wear a mask. Why can’t I represent myself authentically?

Here is the interview process boiled down.
Part I: “Did you do research on our company? Yes? Prove it.”
Part II: “You’ve done some things in the last few years, right? Tell me some different stories. What was the situation, what action did you take, and how did things end up? If you haven’t rehearsed these stories by yourself, to the point that they become emotionless and rote, you will be considered unprepared for the interview.”
Part III: “Now, do you have any questions? If you don’t ask me questions, I will assume you aren’t interested in the job. But beware, I will also judge you based on which questions you do ask!”
Part IV: Second interview. “You have passed the first trials, now prove that you are neither ignorant nor incompetent by answering these next questions.”

Interviews remind me of fairy tales or medieval quests: in order to cross the bridge you have to answer the troll’s riddles. Landing a job itself seems like a riddle. I have found entry level internship opportunities that require one to two years work experience in the respective field. If I had a job in that industry already, why would I be looking for an internship!? In order to get a job you need an internship, but in order to get certain internships you need a job. They expect you to have work experience, but no one is hiring entry level positions. If every job wants you to have experience, where do you get it from?

An image of a student networking. (Jenga) Courtesy of Game On Family

I personally think people are on edge due to the unpredictable nature of business, and many aspects of business culture reflect this. To fight this uncertainty, some people put up a fake front of extreme confidence. Networking with important and well-connected people feels like playing Jenga. You think to yourself, “Okay, just don’t make a mistake.”

Business just doesn’t offer the same security that it used to. Gone are the glory days of 20% yields on US treasury bonds. We may run into serious problems with Social Security in the next 20 years. I have several friends who recently graduated with business degrees and stellar GPAs who are either unemployed or working a minimum wage job.

The Baby Boom after World War II set many expectations about what is “normal” in America. People look at what used to be possible in the past and expect today’s world to work the same way. For better of for worse, the Millennial generation is drastically different than other generations. This generation has shaken up so many industries, and faced challenges that often get overlooked. As an article by The Guardian points out, this is the first Western generation to enter adulthood in a worse economic state than their parents did. Going to university no longer guarantees you a job. The total student loan debt in America is over $1.2 trillion, and the class of 2015 graduated with an AVERAGE individual debt of $35,051.

Courtesy of Reddit

When talking about these issues to other people, they tell me this is just the way things are. They inform me that every industry has its own culture– and no industry’s culture is perfect. But I think business culture can change for the better, and I believe it starts with honest and open communication about its flaws. Readers may think that I am whining and complaining, or being naive and too sensitive. While I may be inexperienced in the business world, I don’t think my complaints are unjustified.

Admitting that business is scary makes one vulnerable, and a weakness is something that others can exploit. I would rather be myself and be exploitable than pretend to be someone I am not. I would like to see a more authentic and personal business culture — one that doesn’t need to put up a fake front.

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