Character Counts, But So Does Skill: A Lesson in Humbleness

I learned a hard, and embarrassing, lesson last week. I’ve been unemployed for over six months and I desperately need a job. I am now in the “ANY job is a good job” mode. I was happy when I got a letter from Comcast saying they wanted me to interview for an installer position I had applied for. Not the most glamorous job in the world, but the pay was better than unemployment, good benefits, and lots of opportunity for advancement. The only foreseeable issue was that there was a manual math test. I am not good at math. Maybe you didn’t catch the “under” in that understatement. I am NOT good at math. I decided to pursue it anyway. I thought that I could gloss over the lack of math skills and wow them with people skills, presentableness, and convince them despite that one shortcoming I was the best man they could put on their front lines.

The letter, and subsequent emails, I got before the interview were VERY clear about their minimum requirements regarding driving records, criminal background, and even the dress code for the interview, which they said was “professional”. I decided that I would go ahead and suit up, even though this was more of a “blue collar” position. I figured it would help with the image I was trying to give of being “a cut above”. When I got there, of the 10 other people in the room, only one had a tie (no jacket), others had golf shirts, a couple of dress shirts with no ties, and one person in jeans and a ball cap. I thought to myself, “I have SO got this!”.

As we moved through the process, everyone had to double-check their applications to make sure they were correct, and sign the normal barrage of paperwork about background checks, etc. Although there was no doubt about the background requirements, several people still thought they were the exception and asked things like, “My license has been suspended before. Does that count?”. (the letter, emails, and paperwork in front of us CLEARLY said NO suspended licenses. Ever.). I was starting to feel pretty good as the candidate pool dwindled right before my eyes on these character issues. I even told myself how LUCKY they would be to have someone like me on their staff.

Then came the math test. Like I said before, I assumed I could take the test, move on to the interview stage, and talk my way out of it. No chance. The test was computerized, and when I was finished they called me over and said I didn’t meet the minimum standards. I was summarily dismissed just like the others with background issues. I was lumped into the same category as “cap and jeans” guy (who had left earlier because of his background). I had sat in judgement of all these other people because they knew the minimum requirements before showing up but thought they were the exception, yet I had done the same thing! I knew math was a part of it. I knew I wouldn’t pass the test. Yet, in my arrogance, I went anyway wasting a lot of my, and their, time.

I took three things away from this experience:

First, never stop practicing—especially with the things you aren’t good at. Even if you struggle with something, the worst thing you can do is perform the bare minimum to get by, and then forget all you learn (like I did with math in school). I’ve done that with other things, too. I took classical guitar lessons for a few years in high school, played some in college and as a young adult, but haven’t played much since. I can still strum along, but can no longer make the beautiful music I did 20-25 years ago.

Second, never discount the value of a well-rounded education (whether it’s in school or in life). When kids say, “Why do I have to learn this! I’ll never use it in real life!”, feel free to share this story. You just never know when you might need it. Always be learning, and once you’ve learned it, go back to point number one.

Finally, pride goes before a fall. Man, was I arrogant. In hindsight, it isn’t the end of the world that I didn’t get this job, but what if it had been my dream job? I have a lot to offer any company. I know that. And part of the interview process is convincing them of that, but the moment I think I’m above anyone else, I’ve already lost! Balancing character, skill, and humbleness is an art-form that we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

I believe this quote from C.S. Lewis sums up my experience nicely:

Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.