Potential employers and other strangers have been lying to you. Dignity, a free mind, and the privilege to support yourself are your birthright.
My first job interview was when I was about sixteen years old. One of my friends set up the meeting between me and her boss at a local organic grocery store where many of our friends worked.
Already my passions for herbal medicines and plant-based diets were evident, and I hoped working at the store would give me some sales and customer service experience in this field where I hoped to eventually plant myself. The job demands were simple enough — stock shelves, answer customer questions, keep the place clean, and occasionally work the checkout.
No big deal.
Well, I didn’t get the job. I was actually kind of stunned because there wasn’t even really an interview. It was just the owner telling me that guys like me ought to go down the street and pick up work in construction (not actually possible when you’re in high school).
Guys like me.
That part stuck with me. What was he talking about? Who were the guys like me? I was at that weird teenage age where you’re either a cocky asshat or a chubby guy with too much body hair and no sense of personal style. Guess which one I was.
I didn’t have many guy friends. And the friends I did have (with a few close exceptions) tended to come from the kind of middle class lifestyle my family could never afford. On top of that, my awkwardness was further entrenched by the conflict between my teenage sexuality and religious fundamentalism, my chronic asthma, and the fish-out-of-water life my parents and I tended to experience as the lone working class conservative family who somehow landed in the liberal suburbs.
Who were the guys like me (and when was I going to meet them)?
To tell you the truth, I still don’t know what that guy was talking about. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned that this is the nature of the society in which we live — we judge one another, we project ideas onto others about who we think they are, what we think their lives have been like, and what they are capable of doing in the future.
Potential employers judge us based on our resumes before they even meet us, and other people judge us based on our appearance before they even get to know us. That’s life.
And everyone is a guy like me in someone else’s mind at some point in their lives, no matter how perfect or insulated you think you are — sorry.
If you’re lucky, people and employers alike see you as an individual. If however, after years of trying to land a job that doesn’t include a mop or a cash register, you figure that you aren’t lucky, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there must be something inherently wrong with you.
I’ve heard that a lot of great economic and political thinkers hypothesize that our society pushes people to internalize failure as a personal defect — and not say, the deliberate mismanagement of an economy for decades — because it gets them to accept less than they deserve. Believing you’re a total fuckup who will never amount to anything makes you more docile, more willing to take work in conditions that could and ought to be improved, and less likely to question a society that outsourced its most accessible industries before you even entered the job market.
Sure, there are lots of quirks and weird ridiculous or toxic things we learned to do for one reason or another. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of us.
More specifically, I mean that you can’t just look at someone and judge who they are. You can’t accurately assess or understand their life. You can’t look at a single sheet of someone’s job history (or lack thereof) and know whether they’re a match for your company. We are so much more than these surface readings of who we might be, or who someone else thinks we are.
Shame on us for reducing the beauty of humanity to these things.
You deserve the dignity of being seen as that complex, unique individual that you have grown up to be. You deserve a mind freed from guilt about existing or how you will be perceived by someone else. You deserve to support yourself, to thrive, to learn, to make a life beautiful to you — without regard to your past mistakes or past directions that make the present more complicated.
Truthfully, I don’t know how to get us there as a society. Even holding those words that seem so self-evident to me is balanced by the weight of so many exceptions that could likely justify their absence just as well.
But I’m sticking to my guns on this one. I’m sticking to encouraging anyone who reads me to cherish their individuality and to refuse to be defined solely by whatever boxes others prefer to see.
I’m sticking to that little mission that’s been percolating inside me since I was a teen — learning how to love and advocate for guys like me.