Have it Your Way

A classmate and close friend of mine was interviewing for a job at a Manhattan-based hedge fund. After making it through to the final round, she was abruptly informed that there were no openings left but that she should apply again next year. She was crestfallen. But where most other students would have thanked the company for the interview and accepted the rejection, she was indignant. She knew they had made a mistake, and she told them so. The company could try to hire other students who knew more about economics and finance, she explained, but those same students would never be able to solve math problems like she could. The HR representative relayed the message, and the company agreed to give her another interview, this time with one of the co-founders. He was blown away by her analytic ability, and she landed the job. By shamelessly advocating for herself, she got her way.

If you are in the market for dates or for jobs, you can’t sit around and wait for people to notice you because chances are they won’t. Be direct. Be blunt. Develop and articulate your preferences. As incredible as it may seem, my friend’s story wasn’t an isolated event. The year after that incident, I interviewed at a Bay Area tech company. I was asked some brain teasers and some algorithm questions, and at the time, I thought it went pretty well. I found out a couple days later that my interviewers felt differently; I was turned away. Surprised (though in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been), I somewhat ridiculously asked them to interview me again. To my delight, they agreed. The lesson is that it generally doesn’t hurt to ask, and if you do ask, you may be surprised by the results.

There’s no guarantee that this sort of persistence will pay off. But it often does. Back in high school, I frequently wound up far down the waiting list for courses I wanted to take. This left me in the somewhat undesirable position of having to decide whether to do the summer assignments (reading half a dozen books and writing as many essays) for courses I probably wouldn’t get to take. Instead of settling for the courses that were offered me (which would have involved more crayons and glue sticks than I could stomach), I acted as if my preferred outcome had already been decided upon. By planning for the best-case scenario (meaning I read all of the books and hoped that a spot would open up), I put myself in a position to get the class while many others on the waiting list did not. And through a combination of luck and an unreasonable persistence, I managed to completely fix my schedule every year.

The point is that you can only get so far by depending on the good will of others. Yes, people generally want to help you out, but if someone is not your agent, you cannot rely on him to seriously champion your interests. That is up to you. If you want to go to parties, call your friends and have them take you out. If you want to understand mathematical induction, ask your math major girlfriend to explain it to you. Whether you are at work, on stage, or in bed, verbalize what you want, and never be afraid to ask. If you need more time on an assignment, ask the professor for an extension. If you want to date someone, tell her. If your roommate’s alarm clock is so obnoxious that you are contemplating rearranging your sleep schedule to avoid hearing it, let him know. Being passive aggressive does not work. Acting that way will strain your relationship and probably won’t even get your point across. Give it up. If you want to change something, then recognize that you are going to have to speak up. You are going to have to be your own advocate.

-Robert