job hunting, job requirements, proxy measures

You Don’t Need to Check All the Boxes

For many things in life, assessing quality can be tricky. Often we can’t tell whether one product or service is better than another. So we rely on reviews, brand names, where the product was made, how it is priced, and so on. I will refer to these as proxies—indirect, often subjective, predictors of quality.

In our careers, especially when job hunting, we are judged by proxies as well. Think of a job posting. The qualifications section lists desired attributes: years of experience, degrees, certifications, even specific past employers (e.g., Big 4, FAANG). These are proxies for intelligence and ability.

Two problems may arise:

First, these predictors may not be accurate.
In our personal lives, we know that proxies can be wrong. Perhaps you’ve been to a restaurant with 4 stars on Yelp that delivered a 2-star dining experience. Or you’ve bought an expensive product that proved inferior to cheaper options. Or you’ve hired a contractor due to their years in business who failed to meet expectations. If so, you know what I mean.

The same is true of job candidates. Just because they look good on paper or interview well doesn’t mean that they will excel on the job. In contrast, sometimes the unlikely candidate becomes a star performer.

Second, we may internalize these proxies as truth.
We may view job “qualifications” as an unyielding checklist. And when we don’t check all the boxes, we may discount our value and not even apply.

Now that doesn’t mean that you should pursue every job. If you aren’t remotely qualified—if you can’t do the job well—then applying is a waste of time. I’m also not saying that proxies have no value. But it’s often a matter of degree. They should be considered as a whole, rather than individual bullet points.

Let’s look at two common examples:

  1. Years of experience. The assumption is that people who have worked longer in a job are more capable at it. This makes sense to some degree. Those with 5 years in a role tend to outperform those with only 1. But when the counts are closer, it’s hard to say. An individual with 3 years may be just as effective as one with 5. Time doesn’t equal experience in the sense of growth and improvement. So years of experience is a misnomer—perhaps it should say years of work history.

  2. Degrees and college pedigree. The belief is that graduates from certain universities make better hires than others. In some cases, this is due to the school’s renown and expertise in a given field, such as law or investment banking. In other cases, there’s a generalized belief based on overall competitiveness, e.g., “If they got into USC, they must be smart.” So the logic goes. This is often but not always true. Top students at state colleges may be just as talented and capable.

As I tell job seekers, you don’t need to check all the boxes. You don’t need all these stamps of approval. If you meet most of the qualifications—if you believe you have what it takes and will commit to excellence—go ahead and apply. You cannot control others’ perceptions, but you can choose not to reject yourself.

This is the eighth post in our series: Challenging Your Self-Limiting Assumptions.