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25.05.2020

You are not qualified

The full impact of these words can initially sound like a death sentence to a young job seekers ears. Or it can just as well be considered an invitation to embark on a personal journey of discovery.

We are sometimes warned that, even if not spoken out loud, being turned down a from job can all too easily be taken personal, and that we should stay clear from personal interpretation. However, I have good reason to believe that it should be taken personal, because this is where the magic begins. The turning down can just as well be considered an invitation to embark on a personal journey of discovery.

I was just about to complete my Abitur [high school diploma] in Germany and had not lived in this country for more than three years, when I was informed of a job vacancy at a large German publisher 300km north of Frankfurt. I submitted my application and was invited for the interview. At that time, I knew very little about German corporate and social life, but was dressed for success, as best as I could, and had read up on the position of ‘Publishing Sales Assistant’.

The interviewers had decided on a confrontational interview style, as was common in those days. Having come from a non-confrontational culture myself, I was caught off guard by the good cop / bad cop style interview. For instance, I was warmly invited to speak about my hobby at the time, but when I happily explained about how I had just finished building my third set of loudspeakers and was a collector of HiFi components, I was rudely interrupted and told to go and make this my job instead. I did not cry, but I was deeply confused, a fact that I could not hide. Some days later, a letter arrived in the mail in which I was informed that I had not been accepted.

This was 27 years ago, but to this day I remember how I felt in that interview. I also remember how I felt, when I opened the envelope in which I received both my rejection letter and my application documents back ‘zu unserer Entlastung’ [loosely translated: so as not to unduly burden our files]. What had gone wrong? What was it in me that they did not see fit for employment? Was it something I said about the loudspeakers, perhaps? Had they mistaken my enthusiasm for my hobby as a sign that I would not be fully committed to the job? The message that I took from this was not to show my true feelings in an interview anymore. To allow employers to behave unkindly towards me and not to show that I was hurt by this behaviour, and if asked about my hobbies to say ‘reading and team sports’ and to shut up about the rest.

Being outcast from society and deemed a social misfit, is a terrible sentence, because we humans so strongly depend on establishing social bonds. This is the message that rejection sends, but it does not have to be received in this way. It has taken me 27 years to understand that I might have been wrong in my reading of the message. Instead of reading: ‘You are not qualified.’, I should have taken it to mean: ‘You can do better than this, and you are free to go.’ The true message may very well have been: ‘We fear that your free spirit and entrepreneurship will clash with our expectations for this position.’ Sadly, my answer at the time would have been ’So do I, please make me be a person who fits in.’ Yet, this does not change the nature of the truth that surrounded all of us on the day of the interview. Namely, that there was a mismatch at the time. My personality had not yet matured enough to explain that instead of just following one interest, I was very well capable of following both. And perhaps the interviewers were too limited in their scope to see that they were curtailing my enthusiasm by making it seem as though I had to make a decision between professional and personal interests.

Therefore, do take it personal. Don’t be afraid of who you are and find ways of expressing yourself. Perhaps there is something to be learned in this for our outlook during the Corona lock-down. Crises will come and go, and in the months to follow, some rejections may arise. However, the more important question is what message we read into them. If it is one of hope and learning, it may provide us with the boost forward, towards a more positive future. Since we are all affected by social distancing and the downturn of the economy, this can be seen as a great unifying experience of rejection. When returning to job life and to our place in society, we now have a greater potential than ever to re-shape our reality in a more appropriate and perhaps more hopeful way.