do I have to be perfect to get a job?

A reader writes:

I have not worked full time in over a year and a half and have been unemployed for two months, when my seasonal job came to an end. I have not been able to find a job and am starting to think there is something wrong with me.

In fact, my perceived flaws are getting to me so much that I can’t fully relax when I am out looking for jobs. When I e-mail a resume or walk into a company, I get into the mindset that I MUST be perfect, or I won’t get the job. I have to have a perfect background, perfect outfit, perfect hairstyle, perfect smile, and answer the questions in the way employers want to hear. If I make a mistake in an interview or have a hard time answering a question, I mentally kick myself for it.

I have yet to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with me and what is holding me back. However, I think my insistence that I have to be perfect or I will instantly lose the job is playing a big part in keeping me from finding employment. How can I relax and stop putting so much pressure on myself? I feel like a failure because I do not have gainful employment, so I really want to find a solution to this.

No, no, no, no!  You do not need to be perfect. In fact, your attempts to be perfect in the way that you’re describing might even be hurting you — because my hunch is that in your attempts at perfection, you’re probably coming across as nervous and uncomfortable, and possibly even stiff.

Most employers want to get a feel for who you really are, warts and all. We’re well aware that no one is perfect, so if we can’t see behind a mask of faux perfection, we get nervous — because we want to know who we’re going to be working with every day. If we get the sense you’re putting on an interview persona, that’s a negative — because you’re not going to be wearing that interview persona to work every day. I mean, yes, most normal people are going to be a bit more formal in an interview than they will be on the job, but we still want to get a sense of who you really are.

Plus, that kind of self-imposed pressure for perfection (a perfection that doesn’t exist) also puts up a barrier to one of things that can turn a good interview into a great one — personal connection. It’s hard to connect on a personal level when you’re focused on being someone other than you.

Easier said than done, I know, especially when you’re feeling the desperation of a long job search. I have a bunch of advice for you on overcoming nerves and getting yourself into a better mindset, and it all happens to be compiled in the “nerves” section of my free guide on how to prepare for an interview. So read that immediately.

Additionally, I’m going to refer you to these posts, from people dealing with the same situation you’re in — a really terrible job market that has a way of messing with people’s heads and making them feel like it’s them, when it fact it’s the merciless math of five times as many job-seekers as job openings:

sometimes it’s not about you

recent grad in despair over job market

a success story from someone who was where you are

Hang in there. You’ve got a lot of company in your situation, and it’s not going to stay like this forever.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Nate*

    I’ve had this problem – so I really feel for the OP here.

    The way I dealt with it is that there is no way to figure out what your employer is looking for *to the letter*, so it is impossible to mold yourself to fit that ideal – you just do your homework and do your best.

    An interview is a chance for personal development, because everything you’ve done with your life is being assessed (hopefully) by someone who wants to help you grow. It’s like being at school – the professor knows you are still green … or else you wouldn’t be in a classroom learning about the subject. It’s kind of like a date too… the person you are out with (if they have any sense) knows that you aren’t perfect, but is out with you because you had XYZ features that made you appear attractive – and that initiated the date.

    Have fun!

  2. Anonymous*

    I graduated in 1983, and while there were fewer people out of work, it was hard for new graduates to find work as the older baby boomers had taken most of the jobs. A friend with an MS in Marine Biology was lucky to get a job driving a bus in Seattle — he is doing well as a top manager now.

    I ended up with four part time jobs, none of them in my field. Those jobs took me in a different direction than my degree — I now earn six figures with full benefits and pension.

    The reality is, it is hard starting out. It always was. Take any job, work hard, give your employer reason to keep and promote you, and work your way up. You’ll get there. You don’t have to be perfect.

    And don’t spend beyond your means. Ever. No matter what.

  3. Satia*

    I’ve had two jobs tell me I was “perfect” for the job and the interview went very well. (Later in the conversation, one person even said that the interview was perfect.)

    But they hired someone else.

    Apparently, even when you’re perfect there is someone who is more than perfect so it’s probably best to just be yourself. If yourself isn’t good enough, it doesn’t matter if you’re perfect, that other more perfect person will be hired.

    And there’s no such thing as more than perfect so you just have to wonder who these more than perfect people are. I think we’re being invaded by more than perfect aliens.

    In the meantime, you are not alone in finding the struggle to find employment a challenge and the longer you look around at resources, like this blog, you’ll see that you are not alone so it can’t be you or your being less than perfect. Often it really does just boil down to a personality fit so let your personality come out a little during the interview, while maintaining a professional veneer, and maybe you’ll be the more than perfect person for that next job position.

    And don’t forget to breathe deeply. That helps too.

  4. CindyB*

    Please listen to AAM – she speaks wise words.

    No-one is perfect. You’re a person, not a machine (and hey, I don’t know too many perfect machines that meet everyone’s needs either).

    Another thought regarding building a personal connection: that’s hard to do when you’re so busy focusing on you, and what you’re going to say next, and mentally kicking yourself. While you’re busy doing that, you might miss something important they say, or a non-verbal cue.

    And if you miss out on a role, ask for feedback. Something that has worked for me (even got me out of the ‘rejected’ pile and back for a second interview because they liked my ‘tenaciousness”) was: “I hope you can help me. While I’m not questioning your decision for a moment, I am determined to move into X industry. Based on your knowledge of the industry and what you’ve learnt about me, where would you suggest I focus my development in order to achieve that goal?”

    I recognise that some people will never be comfortable giving feedback – it’s just a bit easier when you make it ‘safe’ for them to do so.

    Good luck!

  5. The OP*

    OP here.

    Thanks to everyone for commenting, and thanks to AAM for publishing this. Never thought I’d see the day…

    Nate: I like your analogy of a date. I have considered approaching interviews like I am talking to a friend, but then I would be afraid of slipping into being too casual. Maybe I should think of it as talking to a relative instead.

    Anonymous at 7:07: I have tried very hard to get “any job”. Unfortunately, in my area, many “any jobs” are not hiring. I can’t speak for everywhere, of course, but when I have cold called grocery stores and restaurants, many are not hiring or are clueless as to whether they are. They say they are “accepting applications”, but I don’t feel that’s what unemployed people need to hear. I have tried to fill out applications, but I never hear from places again after I turn them in. And don’t get me started on the personality tests so many retail and even some food service jobs are requiring (P.S. If anyone has advice/ideas on how to pass those darned things, I’d appreciate it. Honestly.).

    Satia: I totally agree with your experience. 99 percent of my rejections say the company has found “better candidates”. I always feel I am qualified enough and really wish I could know who the mythical better candidates are. Going back to Nate’s dating analogy, it’s like wondering what I, as a woman, don’t have over the girl that the guy I like chose to date.

    Cindy: Do you think most employers are willing to give feedback? From what I have heard, a lot do not want to for fear of lawsuits or being put in an uncomfortable position. How do you go about this without making the employer feel awkward?

    Thanks again, everyone.

    1. CindyB*

      Hi again Op

      Just to let you know, I’m not in the US, I’m in New Zealand. We don’t have a very litigious culture (and we do have thorough human rights legislation), and that may have played a part in my experience of asking for, and giving, feedback. So with that in mind, here’s my perspective:

      You’re right. No-one wants to be put in an uncomfortable position. Any whiff that feedback is going to be used against the interviewer and it’s unlikely to be forthcoming. The chances of you getting honest and useful feedback is often dependent on the hiring manager’s or recruiter’s experience with you. You increase your chances if throughout the process you have shown self-knowledge and awareness, demonstrated a willingness to learn (which, btw, means acknowledging you’re not perfect) and haven’t got defensive.

      So follow AAM’s advice and ask. What’s the worst that could happen?

    2. Anonymous*

      Anon here: by any job I really mean that. I had to move to another area of the country to get a part-time job, and that was an office temp job (my degree is a DVM so it was considerably below my education). I moved to California where people are generally more willing to take a risk on you. I know that sounds like an urban legend but it’s true. I ended up with: 1 job answering phones that never rang, one job going to the beach taking samples of the water, one job as 3rd assistant to a Hollywood exec, and a few hours a week helping an elderly shop owner close up her shop each evening. My current job (the six figure one) I got by talking to a guy in the produce section at my grocery — he wasn’t hiring but he had a contact in his competition that he though might be. You just never know. Keep trying, and don’t be afraid to try something really radical or out of your comfort zone. You are young – this is your time to get out there and learn about yourself!

      There are employers out there hiring. We are…..

    3. Kate*

      Hi OP. I’ve done a lot hiring in restaurants, and a phone call is a pretty hard way to get a straight answer about open positions. There are so many people who work in a restaurant on any given day that it’s easy for messages to get lost, and 99% of the time the person answering the phone has no idea about the staffing situation.

      Going to the restaurant with a resume and ready to fill out an application is the way to go. Stop by between lunch and dinner (2 to 4:30) when someone will have time to give you a straight answer. If you’re dressed professionally and aren’t obviously crazy you will have a serious leg-up, since lots of applicants will show up in sweatpants acting visibly unstable. I can’t help you with personality tests, but if you apply to non-chain places you’re less likely to have to deal with them.

      I’d also keep an eye on Craigslist if you’re interested in restaurant work (sorry if you already are). I found my restaurant gigs that way, and every restaurant I’ve worked in has advertised jobs there.

      I know what you mean about the pressure to be perfect, and how much it sucks to not get called back when you apply at the grocery store. Good luck, and I hope things start looking up for you soon!

  6. Sarah*

    The “best fit” isn’t always the perfect peg. Sometimes being just a little different makes a better seal. Be YOURSELF and good luck!

  7. Joey*

    As someone who’s hired a ton I can tell you that attitude, while well intentioned, is probably a big reason you’re not getting hired. When someone gives me answers they think I want to hear I start tuning them out and thinking about the next interview. We’re typically smart enough to tell when you’re faking it. If you want to give yourself the best chance first show me you’re qualified, then show me some personality, but not your after hours personality, I want to see your 8-5 personality.

  8. Chris Walker*

    To be successful in interviews, you must take the pressure off yourself. Here are a few suggestions to acheive that. 1) Remember that if you are called for an interview, someone thinks you are at least minimally qualified for the position. No one wastes their time interviewing unqualified candidates. All that’s required of you in the interview is to confirm what they already think. 2) Stop thinking ‘I *have* to get this job!’. You may not even want it after you find out more about it and the company. 3) A job interview should not be an interrogation; it should be a conversation. One technique to make your interviews more conversational is to use short, concise answers. This lets the interviewer ask for more, setting up a back and forth. 4) Prepare, prepare, prepare. Knowing as much as possible about the company, the position and the person(s) doing the interview will help you relax.

  9. Stephen*

    The advice I give everyone when they want to know how to interview is this:
    1) Read AAM
    2) (as Sarah said) Be Yourself! Don’t fake answers, be honest.

  10. OP again*

    Thanks for your advice, Chris. However, I feel like it’s easier said than done to not think that I “have” to get the position I’m interviewing for. I’ve been unemployed for what feels like an eternity, and I am starting to feel like that if I don’t get a job soon, then my situation is only gonna get worse. I’ve been getting unemployment since summer of 2009, so surely I am going to lose that within a few months. Also, a lot of employers are refusing to hire the unemployed. So the longer I am without work, the more I am going to be screwed, so to speak. Obviously you can’t know which employers won’t hire the unemployed, but it’s a growing problem, and I don’t want to become one of the people employers won’t even look at just because I’ve been laid off.

    1. Chris Walker*

      OP–The EEOC may just have something to say soon about using employment status as a screening tool. We can only hope.

      I didn’t read Alison’s piece on how to prepare for an interview until after my previous comment. If you haven’t read it, do it now; it is excellent. Read it the night before every interview. Read it in your car before every interview.

      You don’t mention in your question how you have been identifying opportunities. I hope that you are including direct contact with employers. Posted positions that receive a crapalanch of applicants get you into an elimination game, not a hiring pgame. A good place to start learning how to target companies not postings is here, the Riley Guide’s section on how to research and target employers. I have a piece there on creating contact lists based on a target industry.

      Nobody likes to be around desperate people, so even if you *are* desperate, don’t let ’em see it. That said, make sure at the end of the interview that you tell them you want the job (if you do). As Alison says, just showing up isn’t enough. Good luck to you.

  11. The Plaid Cow*

    1) You have to be comfortable in your own skin. If you are not comfortable with what you are portraying, then it will definitely show through.

    When I was first searching for a job, I took all of the standard advice and went in clean shaven–and was supremely uncomfortable. I missed having a goatee and I think it showed through. When I finally realized that it was making me nervous, I didn’t shave it off and nailed the next interview with facial hair and all.

    2) The desperation to get a job, any job, is likely showing through on your interviews. All of the positive statements you could make about a job cannot overcome this negative vibe. (I mean, if you’re desperate, wouldn’t you the the same nice things about any job?)

    It’s similar to the saying that when you quit looking for love it will find you. If you appear desperate for a mate, any mate, you are not likely to find one. (Of course, no single person actually likes to hear this advice, even when it works.)

  12. Michelle*

    I feel the same as the OP. Although I am currently employed, I really want to move out of my current position. I can imagine that the pressure is 100 times worse when you *need* the job. Once, I had a practice interview with a career adviser who told me that because I took a second too long to draw my references/resumes from my bag, because I wasn’t wearing any makeup and because one of the straps of my purse slipped off my shoulder as I was walking into the interview room, I was giving them impression of being scattered. So now I wonder if employers are really assessing me to that level on top of listening to what I have to say. I can definitely sympathise with the OP. I’m not perfect enough to be ever so poised for multiple hours, so I just try to accept it.

    I really like the advice about making the interview more of a conversation. I probably wouldn’t make my answers more concise – I’d ask them more questions. So if someone asks: “tell me about a time when you had to work as part of a team”, I’d give my typical answer and say something at the end like “is this a collaborative environment? do people like working in teams here?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That “career advisor” who told you that had her head up her ass, seriously. I’m willing to bet she has little to no experience actually hiring people. It reminds me of that recent NYT article where the “advisor” criticized a woman for ordering cranberry juice at a lunch interview. Seriously, real managers (at least not the ones you’d want to work within a mile of) do not care about things like that.

  13. Emily*

    Something helped me feel a bit more comfortable in interviews: being videotaped in mock interviews. It was part of a workshop, and after we were interviewed, we watched the tapes. I not only saw what I needed to do differently, but I saw what I did right. That was an incredible confidence booster.

  14. Bramhesh Aptekar*

    I am graduate with above 60%. but i am not getting job. i am feeling worthless myself.

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