A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.
— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem
The student was a young woman, not long out of high school. And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.
“But I don’t have any weaknesses.” She looked me straight in the eye.
In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews. We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses. The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.
A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals. “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”
“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another. “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”
This particular student, however, was stymied.
“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.
She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly. “I’m too competitive,” she said. “I just always have to be the best.”
It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours. So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.
Again, she looked perplexed.
“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested. “How have you handled that? ” What about academics? Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?
“Grades didn’t matter,” she said. “I didn’t go half the time. That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”
Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least. And hardly alone in her attitude. One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them. We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances. We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.
Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this. At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it. Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.
For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity. Researchers long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.
Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest. As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family. You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect. People may doubt what you say and question your character.
Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.
Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?