Reflections on Rejections: CV of Failures and Application Advice I wish I’d had 3 years ago
Introducing a CV of failures and lessons learned from years of rejections. TLDR at the bottom.
Below is a CV of my failures.
I wrote it in Winter 2018, after a frenzied term applying for graduate jobs. At the time I had many rejections to reflect on.
From the outside, people see only successes. This is an attempt at setting the record straight. In truth I have never travelled along my first choice trajectory. I got into my second choice university, my second choice exchange, my N-th choice graduate job. Happily, I have had lots of options, so that these N-th choices were possible. And I have been lucky to have lots of rejections, for if I hadn’t learned from them I would have fewer successes.
My goals for writing this are contradictory: I hope anyone reading this can learn from my mistakes so they make fewer of their own. But I also hope people reading this are encouraged to try things. Failing is not as bad as it seems.
Working Out What You Want
Who you spend time with dictates your desires
We are mimetic creatures — we copy the desires of the people we hang around. When I hung out with physics students I wanted more strongly to do a PhD. When I spent time with students on different courses, I felt a stronger affinity for consulting and banking because that’s what people were talking about. In my second year I only applied to Barclays because my two flatmates were applying at the kitchen table and beckoned me to join. I ended up interning there not because I had any deep motivation to go into banking, but because it seemed like a cool thing to do.
Be critical of your desires. Are they intrinsic, or have you absorbed them from others? If you are not reflective, you can end up spending years of your life in a mimetic trap.
Tips to combat mimesis:
Spend time with different groups of people. It’s a good sign if your peers think your path is a little weird.
Don’t do anything you hate unless it leads to a specific outcome that you want. There are fun jobs out there. You just have to find them.
Consume unconventional media. Don’t just read what everyone else is reading.
Cast your net wide — Don’t overlook opportunities
Early on when thinking about careers, you should explore many potential options. You don’t know what you’ll like in advance of trying it and finding out.
Don’t let other people put you off potential careers. In high school I was given advice about coding — If you have ideas, you can always hire people to do that for you.
This had a big impression on me and I resisted learning about computer science and machine learning for a long time as a result. If I had ignored this advice, I would’ve found an industry I was interested in much sooner. Make sure you are critical about advice you receive. Seek out second and third opinions. And even if you don’t know what to do, make sure you do some things. Finding out you don’t like something is better than finding out nothing at all.
Talk to people who already have the role you want
Don’t be sold on the slick presentation JP Morgan sell you at university. Don’t uncritically drink in the prestige of being a doctor. Actually go and find out what the role of an analyst, or a junior GP is like. Ideally talk to people currently in the job, as well as people who have left. You’ll have a more realistic picture of what life on the job is like before you apply.
You can save yourself a lot of time and energy if before you apply anywhere you ask yourself:
Would I be happy in this job?
If you don’t know enough about the role to answer it, then find out. Go on Glassdoor. Message previous employees on Facebook or LinkedIn. And if you don’t have enough motivation to find out what the role entails, then you probably aren’t interested in it anyway. Look for jobs which have a process you’re interested in, not just a cool position. If no one knew how important your job was, would you still enjoy it?
Once you find something you’re interested in, commit
My biggest mistake was playing the field. I didn’t commit to physics because I was interested in business and wanted to keep my options open. In reality all this did was reduce my chances of getting a great physics internship (e.g. at the Santa Fe Institute). I learned instead about banking and supply chain but nothing deep. Starting again and again from scratch took time.
I couldn’t get great internships in finance because I didn’t have enough experience in that either. If I focused on physics I could’ve gotten a couple of projects under my belt, which would’ve opened more doors down the line.
If you find an avenue you’d like to explore further, do it. And explore it as deeply as you can. Most successful people initially gained success by doing one thing exceptionally well. Success brings options. After you become successful you can broaden your horizons and work on other interests.
If you can’t find something you’re seriously interested in, don’t worry. Keep exploring. It’s much better to enter the right field later on, than to enter the wrong field early, only to later find you hate it.
Have a definite vision for your future
Richard Hamming, in The Art of Doing Science and Engineering, has this to say about personal visions:
It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on average, travel a distance proportional to the square root of n. But if there is a pretty girl in one direction, then his steps will tend to go towards her and he will go a distance proportional to n.
In a lifetime of many, many independent choices, small and large, a career with a vision will get you a distance proportional to n, while no vision will get you only the square root of the distance. In a sense, the main difference between those who go far and those who do not is some people have a vision and the others do not and therefore can only react to the current events as they happen.
The more definite your vision, the better.
A definite vision suggests steps you could take now to move towards it. Becoming rich or famous is indefinite. There are too many paths to those futures, so they do not suggest a path to take in the present. Becoming a professional footballer is a definite vision. There are skills all professional footballers have mastered. There is a clear path to the goal - first you need to master the basic skills.
Have a vision. You’ll go further if you know where you want to go.
Working Out How To Get There
Become the person companies want to hire
Most jobs are looking for three things, interest, experience and initiative. If you follow the above advice, you should already be interested in the job. Now you’ll need use your initiative to develop experience in the skills the job requires.
For example, many great graduate jobs require leadership experience. This is not because they want some credential to sift between applicants. They are genuinely looking for future leaders. The credential is just a convenient sorting mechanism. The best way to tick this box is to become a leader. Use your initiative to found a society, or rise to the top of an existing one. And do a good enough job leading it so that you can point to it as a past success in an interview.
Investment banks look for financial experience. Analysts have to write LBO models in Excel. So learn how to write an LBO model in Excel. Make 10 of them using public company financials. If one of them seems interesting, publish it on a blog with your methodology. Then you have something to point to in your interview.
Impostor syndrome is epidemic. We believe that we are so unworthy of success that we want advice on how to con Goldman Sachs or McKinsey into hiring us. There is no con. The path to a job at Goldman or McKinsey is simple. Become the type of person they want to hire. This path is hard. It involves fundamental internal changes, not just changing the way you present yourself publicly. But it is also worthwhile. When you succeed, you don’t feel phony. You can look back on your hard work and know you’ve earned it.
Pursue interests actively — Thoughts can’t go on your CV
There are some rejections I am really disappointed in. Like the Santa Fe Institute. I wanted to go into research for a long time, but few PhD programs suit my interests. I have so many! I cannot focus on one problem for four or more years, when there are so many other questions waiting to be asked. The Santa Fe Institute studies ideas at the confluence of many disciplines, and would suit me very well, or so I thought. I applied for their summer research program in 2018.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite the person they were looking for. I had no skills, no completed projects to catch their eye. I had been thinking and reading about interdisciplinary projects for a long time, but had nothing to show for it. I hadn’t used my initiative to demonstrate my interest on my own. This characterised a lot of my childhood. I spent so much time thinking about things. How to build an engine, write a comic, design a computer game. But little time doing the things.
When the chips are down and you are applying for work, you can’t present your thoughts as a CV. Part of my motivation in publishing this CV of failures is to galvanise myself. Get up off the sofa! Stop daydreaming your projects and start carrying them out.
Relentlessly seek feedback
Feedback is truth. And sometimes the truth hurts. But paying attention to it is the most reliable way to improve your performance.
When I first applied for consulting, despite lots of reading, I had no idea what I was doing. I was up against people who literally practiced mock interviews over breakfast. At the time, I didn’t even eat breakfast. I wasn’t practicing the advice I gave above. Despite reading that some applicants practice 50 case interviews before their real ones, I didn’t worry. I figured I was smart enough to finesse my way into a job.
I was wrong. Luckily I had my first interview weeks before any of the others. It was a wakeup call. It was with the oldest management consulting company in the world. They asked me to estimate the revenue of British Airways last year. This was supposed to be a 15-minute starter question, but it took me half an hour. Understandably I found out a few days later that I was rejected.
Rejections are a crude form of feedback. Unless you reach out to your interviewer, how are you to know why exactly you were turned down? I had a call with my interviewer, who told me how I could improve the structure of my thinking and clarity of my communication. My mistakes were so basic that he couldn’t even give me anything specific to work on.
If I had done even one practice interview, I could’ve gotten this advice for free. I convinced myself I didn’t need to, so when rejection came it hurt even more. Feedback calls after subsequent rejections provided more detail so I could hone my skills further. After several more failures, I finally began passing interviews.
Get feedback as early as possible in your preparation. You don’t want to be bad for a second longer than you need to be. It is better to learn before your interviews than afterwards. If you admit you’re bad and seek out feedback before your interviews, you’ll pass more of them, and avoid my mistakes.
Dealing with failure
Failure is useful. It allows you test the limits of your abilities. Unless you fail you can’t know what you’re capable of. But job interviews are a bit like flying a plane. It is much better to fail in a simulation than in the real thing. Better feedback allows you to change yourself faster, which ultimately allows you to have the future you want.
Make sure you aren’t just copying what everyone else wants to do. Find intrinsic motivation.
Talk to people in the job you want so you know what they actually do before you apply.
You’ll go further if you know where it is you want to go. Have a definite vision for your future.
Don’t try and con companies into hiring you. Become the type of person they want to hire.
Get feedback quickly, regularly, and act on it.
Influences: Johannes Haushofer’s CV of failures, Peter Thiel, Jocko Willink