A guide to job hunting as a humanities graduate in Hong Kong (Part 2/6)

Step 1: Learn to talk about your own value

Know thyself. If there’s one thing you learn through a degree in the humanities, it is to understand human society, including yourself. Knowing yourself includes knowing your flaws, or where you need to grow.

Yes, I may be good at writing, but I’m not that good – not compared to the writers I admire. Does this sound familiar? Yes, I have an analytical mind, but there is so much I don’t understand. The more I learn, the less I feel I know. If you’ve had these thoughts, it means you’re thinking critically about yourself and your role in the world. Being able to think this way – to reflect on who you are – is an invaluable ability, one that will help you navigate life.


Tone down your self-criticism

However, being self-critical is also a skill that can get in the way when you plan your career. Especially when you’re looking for work, you need to temporarily compartmentalize – or at least moderate – that ability to criticize yourself.

Instead of focusing on what you don’t know and what you haven’t done, learn how to talk about what you do know and have done. Put differently, practice how to articulate why someone should employ you. I’m not encouraging you to get rid of your ability to think critically about yourself. What would recommend is to control your self-criticism. Tone it down somewhat, now that you are applying for work.

As a career coach, I specialize in coaching people with a background in humanities and social sciences, and I’m often struck by how hard it is for people to realize their own value. I help my clients structure their job search and I support them as they plan and find direction in their careers. Yet one of the most important things we do together is to find the right words to describe my clients’ achievements and skills. Often, this is a matter of removing unnecessary jargon, and/or taking words that are common in academia and translating them to words that are common in the industry in which my clients want to work. Speaking to your audience is a skill that you need to hone when you graduate and begin your job search.

Fake it until you make it

Besides the ability to speak to your audience, you also need something else: The ability to talk about your value and “fake it until you make it”. Now, if there is one piece of advice I would give out in a heart-beat, it would be just that: “Fake it until you make it”.

Now, if there is one piece of advice I would give out in a heart-beat, it would be just that: “Fake it until you make it”.

“Fake it until you make” is good advice for several reasons. For one, if you do not believe in yourself and do not dare to take any risks, new opportunities will not come to you. Your lack of belief in your own future will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the flip side, if you allow yourself to “perform” a little – if you “pretend” to be more confident than you are – that can open up opportunities. People will notice you because you put yourself out there. And no, you do not actually need to be confident to do this. That’s the whole point: You “fake” confidence, but in faking it you start making braver decisions. You do things you otherwise wouldn’t dare to do. This in turn opens doors. And suddenly, you’re standing there, having to pick between opportunities that you never thought would come your way.

Let me give a specific example. If you want to work with social media marketing but don’t have any experience to show for, the advice “fake it until you make” can mean creating a social media marketing campaign from scratch. You don’t even need to have a client. Pick an interesting company that you think could use some new marketing and think of them as your client. As you work through this self-invented project, you will build up experience with social media marketing. Yes, it’s not a paid project, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that you are building your portfolio, gaining experience, and doing something rather than focusing on what you haven’t done.

You are giving yourself a challenge and, by completing that challenge, you have suddenly done something you didn’t think you could do. This is one useful way of understanding “fake it until you make it”: By deliberately setting yourself difficult tasks and goals, you force yourself to rise to the challenge. You go from “faking” it to “making” it.

“Fake it until you make it” is also good advice because “faking” it – that is, appearing more confident than you are – is how many people move through the world. You may have heard the term “impostor syndrome”, which describes the feelings that you are an impostor, a fraud, someone who does not belong in a given environment. The term describes “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. And in fact, while it’s often called the “impostor syndrome”, it might be better to think of it as the “impostor phenomenon” (which is in fact what the originators of the term, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, called it in their 1978 article). After all, it’s not a syndrome. It’s not pathological. It’s a commonly shared feeling that many people – across all industries and all levels – feel from time to time: The feeling of not being good enough.

“Fake it until you make it” is about recognizing that everyone feels like a fake sometimes. In other words everyone is faking it. When you look at people who appear successful, it’s easy to marvel at their successes, and envy the ease with which they do what they do. However, what you don’t see when you look at these people, are all the times they have also felt (and feel) like they aren’t at the top of their game. Nor do you see all the times they have failed and gotten rejected. And why would you? The media (and we, who consume the media) love to focus on the cult of the successful, self-made individual.

If you ask most people and they answer frankly, they are likely to tell you that they do feel inadequate at what they do from time to time. For this reason, it’s important that you don’t berate yourself too much for feeling inexperienced or inadequate.

Instead, give yourself challenges. Start projects. Do the very things you think you can’t do. In giving yourself these challenges, you end up doing rather than dreaming. In the process, you build up the very experience you initially lacked. You will also make the very mistakes you need to make in order to get truly good at something.

Practice and use your support network

Finally, learning to acknowledge your own value and skills is work worth doing because the truth is, nobody else can do that work for you. Or rather, if others are to help you and support you, you need to give them something to work with.

Now, even though it’s your responsibility to create the story about who you are, I want to underscore that asking for help and support is crucial. It’s easy to influenced by the dominant, individualistic rhetoric that says: “Everything is your responsibility. Every failure and success you have is your own doing. You, as an individual, need to fix your own problems.” Rather than adopting this individualistic approach, I believe that every single one of us belongs to a larger social context. Your failures are not attributable only to your efforts. Nor are your successes simply your own creation. For that, the world is too complex.

If we apply this to career planning and to learning to talk about your value, the lesson is: Ask for advice and help from others. For many, it’s more enjoyable and also easier to articulate what you are good at if you do it together with friends or a group of like-minded people. Sure, it’s challenging and can be a bit awkward to describe yourself in front of others, but it’s a safe way to practice. Others can also help you find the words to describe your personality, skills and experience.

If you’re applying for work and have friends who are in the same boat, why not get to together one Saturday afternoon, bring paper and pens, and brainstorm ideas together? I strongly recommend my clients to use the support network around them whenever they are planning their careers. Ask your friends to help you identify your skills, interests and ambitions, and do the same for them. It can not only make career planning less daunting and more fun; it will also make everyone feel more supported. And asking for and giving support is rewarding, even crucial, when you are job searching.

Learn to see your worth

Apparently, humans have a strong tendency to overestimate their own abilities, according to research by social scientists.* Yet the nature of my job as a career coach means that I regularly get insight into another aspect of humanity: Our tendency to underestimate yourselves, and our struggle to really acknowledge our own skills, knowledge, and value.

In my experience, it’s often the most hard-working, gritty and brilliant people who have problems seeing their own value. That’s hardly a surprise: The more you know about a subject, the more you realize how little you yourself know and how far you have to go. Yet if you are applying for work, start by learning to talk about your own value. Practice it. Do it often, and do it with people you trust. Later still, attend events where you have to introduce yourself to strangers, and talk about the kind of work you’re looking for.

The next part of this guide to job hunting for humanities graduates in Hong Kong will revolve around a skill that many humanities graduates have: the ability to think analytically and do research. You will learn why you might want to treat your career planning like a research project, and how it will benefit your job search.

*For more on blind spots, see Chapter 2 of Originals by Adam Grant (“Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors: The Art of Recognizing Original Ideas”).

Relevant blog posts

A guide to job hunting as a humanities graduate in Hong Kong (Part 1/6)

How to build a meaningful career

Further reading

HBR: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

NYT: Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Such Terrible Advice


About the author

Julianne Yang is a Norwegian career coach and HR consultant in Hong Kong. She offers one-on-one career counselling for young professionals, PhD candidates, and university students who are looking to build meaningful careers. She also designs and runs career workshops and training sessions for universities, co-working spaces, and companies in Hong Kong.

When she’s not career coaching or training, she works as an HR consultant for small- to medium-sized tech companies, managing all things related to hiring. If you need help with writing job listings that attract the right talent, screening candidates, conducting interviews, and developing effective employer branding and recruitment marketing strategies, feel free to get in touch.

Read more about Julianne (www.julianneyang.com)

Julianne Yang