This past week I’ve done something I haven’t done in years: submit a job application. I’ve always royally sucked at applying for jobs. My first ever job was an internship-turned-full-time, and then people from that job started their own company and headhunted me into my second job. After quitting it in 2009, I’ve been 100% freelance. Jobseeking stage 1: two jobs, zero applications.
There was also a brief period in 2013 when my previous freelance gig became unsustainable and I basically applied for every part-time retail job in Liverpool. I haven’t heard back from anyone at the time, and in restrospect, I’m profoundly thankful for that, as that had ultimately led to me building a new successful freelance practice. Still, jobseeking stage 2: ~20 applications, zero jobs.
Then, last week, a short existential crisis spiral had led me to jobseeing stage 3: applying for the vacancy of an assistant librarian. Thus came the truly surrealist task of distilling 15 years of freelancing, 7 years as a novelist and comic book writer, and 4 years of largely unrelated finance experience into something that would demonstrate the hiring panel my suitability for the job.
Welp, I thought as I worked my way through the application form. I’ll just list my previous and current jobs in the appropriate section, and then make an impassioned plea in the part reserved for the cover letter, saying that even though none of my previous employment and self-employment is particularly relevant for the job, I’m really passionate about books and knowledge, I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, so… pretty please?
I’m happy to say it didn’t come to this. Because as I thought, REALLY thought about the work I used to do, and the work I do today, the more I came to realize that none of my previous jobs and projects were a waste of time or a forgotten chapter of my life. My skills and knowledge today are the sum of everything I’ve done – whether for an employer, a client, a volunteer project, or for creative work.
They want someone who can convey information to people in understandable ways – well, I’ve done that when I held trainings for the sales department on how to write loan applications, when I coahed new employees and my replacements, when I advised clients on their own CVs and cover letters.
They want someone who can offer friendly customer service and get people enthused about books – I womanned many a convention table, chatting up people I’ve never met before, and getting them sufficiently enthused about the books in front of them that many of them voluntarily gave me money in exchange for those books.
They want someone who has time management and organization skills – ladies, you’re looking at someone who has held a freelance gig in conjunction with a part-time job AND a full-time uni.
The list goes on, but I won’t bore you with the rest, because I didn’t write this blog post to brag about my credentials (although if anyone from the recruitment panel is reading this while running a background google check on me – hello, it’s very good to see you, enjoy your time on my blog, please pick up a free short story collection). The main point is, I think that I figured out why I’ve always sucked at applying for jobs.
Until now, I’ve never applied for a job I wanted. A job I needed, sure. A job that seemed like a good idea. A job that promised good money, security, even self-actualization. A job I knew I’d be good at. But never a job that I wanted, one that I picked out of a long, long list, one that I pointed to, and said – yes, that’s the one, that’s what I want to do. Until this one.
If I could boil my experience down to any sort of shareable advice, it would be this: if you’re struggling to put together a convincing CV or cover letter, ask yourself why you’re applying for the job. Is this the dream job? A dream-adjacent job, at least? It’s okay if it’s not, obviously: most of the time in our lives we take what jobs we can find. In that case, conventional CV and cover letter advice will serve you well (as will taking a cover letter writing lesson from Luke Skywalker)
But if it IS a dream or dream-adjacent job, what makes it such? You must be driven to it by something that you like doing, something you know, something you ARE. All those things – your skills, your knowledge, your personality – are a product of the life you’ve led up to the point of your job application. Actual jobs, passion projects, volunteering, stuff you did in uni – in all of these things people tend to practice the skills they already have and/or learn new ones. You’d be surprised at how many of those skills can be transferable.
Of course, none of the above will protect you from being filtered out because of lacking the 3 years of experience mysteriously required for an entry-level position, because of failing to include a specific keyword in your CV, or because of bias and prejudice. Job-hunting sucks, there’s no sugar-coating it, and I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be applying for a dream-adjacent job while knowing that not getting it won’t leave me bankrupt.
But if you do ever find yourself in that position, if there’s a job that you pick out of a long list, point to, and say “yes, I want to do THAT,” then don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to give it your best shot. Ask yourself what it is about the job that appeals to you – and you may find exactly what makes you good for the job.
P.S. I’ve joked over the years that if I’m ever in a job interview that’s obviously going south and they ask me why I’m applying for the job, my answer is going to be “because under capitalism, I’m forced to sell my labor in order to subsist.” Well, in the eventuality that this application gets me an interview, I know I won’t be tempted to say the above. Rather, my answer would be to quote Neil Gaiman: “I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win.”
And then there’s Lemony Snicket’s quote about libraries, of course, but I already used that on my job application. Yes, I really did that. No, I’m not ashamed.