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Overcoming the Fear of Selling Yourself

By Marty Nemko

In this lousy job market, most of the best jobs go to people will ask, “Might you know someone in a position to hire someone like me?” to virtually anyone: old friends, your haircutter, the person sitting next to you at a professional meeting, a hirer at your dream employer even though he’s not advertising a position.

Alas, many job seekers would rather have a colonoscopy than ask people for job leads. The good news is that fear of selling oneself can be cured. But like a headache, the fear is only the symptom. The right medicine depends on what is causing the fear.

CAUSE 1: You’re not sure what sort of job you’re looking for.

SOLUTION: One approach is to scan the index of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which describes hundreds of the most popular careers. It’s free at Or browse the index of your Yellow Pages. Or for a more thorough approach, you could earn me a buck by buying my book, Cool Careers for Dummies. It offers one-paragraph profiles of 500 popular and under-the-radar careers and self-employment opportunities, plus “The 25 Most Revealing Questions,” to help you figure out what you really want in a career.

Sometimes, however, despite using those resources, you’re still not sure what job your looking for. In that case, simply develop a one-sentence pitch listing your two or three best skills. For example, “I’m looking for a position that uses my ability to manage projects and my knowledge of horticulture or yoga.”

CAUSE 2: Fear you’re not worthy of being hired.

SOLUTION: Sure it could be a self-esteem issue and in fact you are a giant among giants, but you could be right—you don’t deserve to be hired. Ask yourself whether you need more training, or even if you’re in the wrong line of work.

CAUSE 3: Fear of imposing.

SOLUTION: First, recognize that the person you’re calling is a grown-up. He or she can say no. Perhaps more important is the karma concept: All of us need help at some point. As long as we promise ourselves to be helpful when someone asks us for help, there’s nothing wrong with our asking for help. Besides, you’re not asking for a handout. You’re asking for a little advice as to where someone like you might turn for work. Who knows, you might even be the answer to that person’s prayers. In any event, many people won’t resent your query at all—they feel good about being asked for advice.

CAUSE 4: Fear of sounding awkward or stupid.

SOLUTION: Write a script pitching yourself. For example, “I’m an associate at a prestigious law firm but am tired of the law’s contentiousness. I’d like to use my knowledge of employment law and ability to work well with people by joining an HR department. I know someone who works at your company and loves it, so I figured I’d give you a call.”

Also script answers to any questions you’re afraid you might be asked, for example, “What were you doing during those two years of unemployment?” Practice your script until you can paraphrase it naturally. You might also ask a trusted friend to role play a cold-call to a potential employer.

CAUSE 5: None of the above, just a vague anxiety about selling yourself.

SOLUTION: Don’t hype yourself. Don’t be stuffy. Be yourself. Be revealing without sounding like a basket case. Tell your truth in a human way and at least one employer, a well-suited employer, will resonate with you. Most employers are sick of B.S.

A FAIL-SAFE: If you’re still reluctant to sell yourself, accept yourself. Focus your job search on answering ads—just answer lots of them. Most ads get dozens if not hundreds of responses, especially ads on the huge online employment sites. Only answer ads for jobs for which you’re truly qualified—the employer wouldn’t waste time screening all those applications if he’d accept someone marginally qualified—he’d hire his cousin Rufus. In addition to the Chronicle’s ads, check out specialty employment websites. For a master list, go to

* * * *

A listener to my radio show called me to say she was a calligrapher and wanted permission to calligraph something I had said. She asked me to repeat it so she got the wording right. Here’s what I said:

Geneticists now tell us what every mother has long known: each of us comes from the womb with a distinct personality. Once you accept that, you can shift from the usually futile task of trying to fix your deeply ingrained weaknesses to putting yourself in environments that maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. And you can move from trying to change others to accepting them as they are, and perhaps helping them, warts and all, to find their place in the world.

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