Ruin and Renewal in the job market
**This article was originally posted on Femsplain**
There’s nothing more tiring than forcing yourself to be something you’re not. Like repeatedly trying to put the square block in the round hole, you eventually chip away at yourself, changing your look, your manners, even the way you think, all in an attempt to fit into the box people have already decided to put you in.
Never has this been more true than for the modern-day graduate looking for a job. We’re past fulfilling. We’ve moved on from the “work-life balance” (if such a thing ever existed). Just a “job” would do — ideally something I can explain to my family in less than 500 words, but we’ll keep the focus on money in the bank for now. We stretch and pull ourselves in all directions in search of something, anything. But the more I think about it the more I realize that, really, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re more desperate than we should be. There are just some things on which we shouldn’t be willing to compromise — a lesson I eventually learned.
There’s no feeling worse than graduating with a top degree from a top college in a top subject and having nothing to show for it. No job, no internship and barely an interview. Okay, there are worse feelings. But for a middle-class, second generation ethnic minority female, you’d be hard-pressed to top it. In my household, education was stressed as being above all, as it is in many Nigerian households. “Face your book” has become an in-joke amongst those of us privy to the intricacies of West African parenting, and “smart” just a misnomer for “studies all the frickin’ time.”
Being a girl probably didn’t help either. Multiple studies show that throughout school, girls are more eager to please (we’re literally described as eager-to-please, adj.), whereas boys are seen as rambunctious and often disaffected with the school system. This is good news for our grades but bad news for our independence — instead of going with our hearts, we’re more likely to go with our brains. We don’t want to break the mould or — god forbid — disappoint anyone, so we make ourselves become something altogether more pleasing to the senses.
So many times I tried to force myself to be something I’m not. I studied Chinese at university because it was competitive, not because it was what I really wanted to do (which was Japanese). Luckily for me I ended up loving it, but that’s where my luck ran out. Instead of then looking for jobs that had all the elements of the things I loved, I found myself going for the “tried and tested,” the safe route. Something Nigerians all over the world could be proud of: Lawyer.
Oh, how the Lawyer, Doctor and Teacher are revered in Nigerian culture. With grades like mine and an appropriately ambiguous ethnic background, how could they possibly refuse? Well, refuse they did. Week after week I received nothing but rejections, and I’m not exaggerating here. I got to the interview stage for one company, only to be told that I didn’t know enough about law to proceed.
Me: “Did they know that I was applying as a non-law applicant?”
*Hangs up phone*
Not able to withstand the mounting pressure of the ever-growing pile of rejections, I came to a realization. The HR department of every Magic and Silver circle firm in the country could see what I wouldn’t accept: I was forcing myself to be something I’m not.
Resilience Part I: If not lawyer, then what? I could deal with not being something I didn’t want to be, but I still hadn’t quite mastered how to bounce back into something suitable. I was a teacher in China for six months, which I quit because I hated it. I worked in marketing (read: sales) for four months, which I quit because I hated it. I now work in an unnamed Chinese company, which I hate and am planning to quit. A never-ending whirlpool of workplace turmoil it is then.
But wait! A happy ending may yet be in sight!
Resilience Part II: Actually doing something you want, despite obstacles.
After springing back from rejected applications, terrible jobs, worse bosses and plain rudeness, I was able to bounce in a somewhat more favorable trajectory: I decided to start my own company. But there were — and are — more pitfalls to come.
I had an idea, a colleague and badass organizational skills. But then my colleague lost confidence in the idea and dropped out. And I was stuck, all over again, in the “no job, no hope” zone. Could I go it alone? Was my idea even any good? How could I forge ahead and become an entrepreneur when I had trouble remembering how to spell the word?
But I’ve stuck to it. I’ve been rejected funding, I’ve been told my idea can’t be executed, and so far not a single person has bought my product. But every time one of these things has knocked me down, the support of my family, friends, mentors and — probably most importantly — myself have picked me back up again. I have absolute faith in my idea and am doing everything I can to achieve it. I’m working in a startup full-time to support myself and learn how to (and more often how not to) run a company. I work on my idea in the evenings, network at least three times a month, speak to everyone I know who has ever owned a business. I’ve done work for free just to get a referral or to have something to show for myself, and I’m so close to getting that first sale I can taste it.
Resilience is defined as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean you should spring back into the same shape. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
So to all the young women out there just like me, here is a message: like as not you’ve never had to be resilient before, but you’re about to learn the meaning of the word. You’re going to be pummeled by rejections, tripped up at the last hurdle of the panel interview, infuriated by those lesser mortals who got the position over you, and thrown into a fit of fury by those who commit the cardinal sin of not even bothering to respond to your application.
I’ve been rejected by all kinds of people: interviewers, investors, computer algorithms. But not a single one of those things can hold me back from achieving what I want to achieve. Not because they didn’t knock me down, but because they can’t keep me down.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with an interesting anecdote. According to the BBC (the source of all knowledge), while girls are more likely to be self-motivated and empathetic, boys are more likely to be impulsive and competitive — which is why boys are more likely to apply for jobs for which they’re not fully qualified, more likely to ask for and get a higher salary and more likely to make their own way and become entrepreneurs. So, break the mould, get resilient and forge your own path, woman!