The Job Hunter
By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger
I don’t have anything to write.
I don’t mean “I” as in your humble job-search and career-choice coach/educator. I mean that I often hear this claim from clients who were supposed to work on their résumés before they meet with me. I emphasize that they should be thinking of any special skills, accomplishments, or talents that they can present to a potential employer. Accomplishments that they can put forward as examples of the value that they could contribute, of the achievements that they could replicate in their new positions. I explain that telling brief stories about these points will be a way to stand out from the crowd and grab the attention of an employer. And sometimes the client will answer, “I don’t have anything to write.”
I’ve also heard this from people who are considering starting a business. Whether they want to offer a service—say, accounting—or sell something, I will always ask, “What makes your offering special? Why should anyone want to buy from you?” And sometimes the answer is “Nothing. I can do accounting (for example) just like any accountant.” Or, “I can sell surgical supplies just like anyone else.” And their assumption is that since there are many people who need their product or service, it will be enough if they can just win the attention of a few customers. So I ask them if they’re planning to call their business “Just Another Medical Supplies Company.”
Is it possible that there are businesses that succeed even though they really aren’t special? Can somebody get a job without standing out from the crowd? The answer to the first is clearly “no,” and to the second, “maybe, but you probably won’t want that job.” Let me illustrate what I mean.
There is a business where, by definition, there is no way that any product can stand out from any competitor’s. Gas stations sell gasoline, and no matter the brand, every car can use it, with the same results. So aside from offering a gallon for a penny or two less, there is really no way to convince the public that it matters which gas station you buy from. Yet we know that nothing could be further from the truth. Gas stations advertise (a primitive type of résumé) that they are friendlier, more community-spirited, open more convenient hours, sell fresher bread and milk, and if you live in Monsey, hot cholent. Will buying gas from a station that sells cholent make your car run better? Of course not, but it doesn’t matter. The point of advertising isn’t to teach the customer which gas is better; the point is to show that in some way, one gas station is special. That’s the one you should buy from.
While we’re at the gas station, we can find workers whose work is of the same quality, no matter who does it. The attendant who fills your tank can fill any tank, and there’s no way to distinguish the work of one attendant from the other. So you might think that if you want to be a gas-station attendant, you can be “just like everyone else.” Well, even if I would accept such a claim, I would ask if pumping gas or similar jobs would fit the career goal of any of my clients. I would also ask if anyone believes that one gas-station attendant is the same as any other. We would clearly choose to buy from a station where the attendant was friendlier, faster, more knowledgeable, or more courteous. So even at the lowest rank, workers really will be chosen based on the perceived potential to do outstanding work.
At this point I turn to my client and ask again, “What is it that makes you special?” A recent client had a hard time answering the question. She had graduated from a prestigious school, one of a select group of students that had made it through an extra-challenging program and were all now applying for the type of extra-demanding jobs that would engage their considerable talents to the fullest. The problem was that even at that level, there aren’t enough of these great jobs to go around. Even after working so hard in school, going the extra academic mile, getting the prized degree, she could only win the job of her dreams by standing out among the blue-ribboned competitors. If they all had the same top-flight training, she wondered, how can I assert that I’m special?
Imagine a race with fifteen runners, on a track that allows only five to run at a time. So they divide themselves into three groups, and decide that the three fastest times will be awarded gold, silver, and bronze. After all were done, they found that the fastest in each group had posted the exact same time. Three equally deserving champions! So they prepare for a run-off to find a winner. But look more closely. One runner is lying on the ground, totally exhausted, a second is with his trainer, getting his sore muscles massaged. But the third is at the starting blocks, practicing his stride and focusing on an even better performance. Three equal champions? Not at all!
Every job applicant faces this challenge. By definition, someone will be hired from among a group of well-qualified applicants. But if all are well qualified, how can anyone stand out? Because most of those applicants will put forward a summary of their past. My client, who got the job, used her past to put forward a vision for the future. ϖ
Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.