The summer I was nineteen, I rode a bus downtown on a sunny weekday to apply for a job as a receptionist at what is now AT&T. Back then, job applicants actually dressed up for interviews with potential employers. If my memory serves me, I’d chosen a belted suit with short sleeves that was made of a cheap, pale blue cotton fabric—a feminine version of something Jack Hanna might wear. At nineteen, very high heels caused me absolutely no pain, so probably I was wearing some caramel-colored sandals with stacked heels. I can remember owning those shoes and wearing them with that blue skirt and jacket.
After the job interview, I left the high rise offices of AT&T and walked a few blocks toward the bus stop. I was thinking of how I’d answered the questions and of other companies where I might be able to submit a job application. As I walked past a construction site, one of the workers—how cliché, but this is true—yelled at me, “What are you doing?” and stood there waiting for an answer.
I was naive and surprised, so I smiled sincerely and answered him without breaking stride. “I’m looking for a job.”
He said, “Come here. I’ll give you a job.”
I was so young that I didn’t comprehend what he meant until I’d walked another block or two. Then I felt my ego shatter.
A few other times in my life I’ve fortunately failed to understand a vulgar insult until I had gained some literal and figurative distance. For each of those occasions, I’m terribly grateful for the protection of my ignorance.
Job hunting is probably the most difficult, demoralizing thing we do, aside from dying. It makes us feel vulnerable, unwanted, and discouraged. But it’s not something most people can avoid.
Let me ask this favor. The developmental psychologist Arthur Jersild said, “Compassion is the ultimate and most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity.” If you ever find yourself in a position to interview someone for a job, or to offer advice or encouragement to someone seeking work, would you please try to recall what it’s like to feel so hopeful and so defenseless?