Diligence vs. Ability: Rethinking What Impresses EmployersJune 26th, 2009 · 16 comments
Note: I’m leaving tomorrow for a one-week California vacation. With that in mind, I give my normal warnings about being slow to moderate comments, reply to e-mails, and post new articles until I return.
With graduation season winding down, job hunting is on many students’ minds. Because of this, I have a habit of sharing career advice around this time. Last year, I pitched the idea of lifestyle-centric planning. This year, I want to briefly discuss a crucial distinction that can shape the character of your college experience: the difference between diligence and ability.
The Diligence Hypothesis
Over the years, I’ve advised hundreds of stressed college students. The reason for their stress is almost always the same: time famine. The student are taking more than the normal course load and often have an absurd number of extracurriculars commitments.
This leads to an interesting question: why are they doing this?
When you dig deeper, the answers often turns on some vague belief that the more hard things they do, the more impressive they’ll be to potential employers. I call this the diligence hypothesis. At its core is the idea that proving you can handle difficult workloads is a desirable trait.
Here’s the problem, I’ve never met someone in a position to making hiring decisions who is particularly interested in this trait. Almost without exception, they say they are most concerned with:
- Where you went to school.
- Your grades.
- Your relevant work experience.
Employers don’t see your academic schedule and aren’t particularly interested in your extracurricular activities. With this in mind, the bulk of the pain suffered by students with absurd course loads, three majors, and ten club memberships, is unnecessary.
The Ability Hypothesis
This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do outside of your grades and summer internships to help your employment chances. It’s just that surviving a large volume of commitments is not a particular effective choice to help you stand out. I want to propose a different approach for adding distinction to your resume: becoming exceptionally good at something.
Here’s the important part: what you become exceptionally good at does not have to be directly related to your desired job. People are impressed by a general capacity to be exceptional. We’re drawn to stars. We admire stars. We believe they can replicate this feat in other areas.
I call this the ability hypothesis. It tells us, for example, that being a star in your major, and winning tons of awards and grants, can really help your job prospects, even if your major is unrelated to the job. Likewise, if you’ve written a book or built up a large organization, people will respond positively. This makes you seem like the type of person who can make big things happen once employed.
Surviving a tough double major, or taking chemistry, bio, and calculus in the same semester, on the other hand, just confirms that you’re a hard worker. This is less rare. And the reward to effort ratio is probably not worth it.
The good news, of course, is that putting in an A* effort is much more rewarding and much less stressful than difficulty-centric achievement. You’ve heard this message time and again here at Study Hacks. I’m just hoping to more directly connect this crucial concept to your prospects beyond college graduation.