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You Will Not Reject Me. I Will Reject Me.

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

The other day I got a frantic call. “I need your help. It’s been too long. I know they aren’t going to give me the job; they must have someone else in mind. I’m going to pull out first, but don’t know whether it’s better to call or to send an e-mail. What’s proper etiquette? You know these things; what should I do?”

There are no good answers to bad questions, and this was a bad question, indeed. “Phone versus e-mail?” was not the right question. The real question was, “What do you hope to accomplish by withdrawing from a search for a job you really want?” So, I asked it.

My caller rambled on about the composition of the search committee, their obvious lack of vision, their series of misguided questions, and the impact on his self-esteem and reputation if the position were to be offered to someone less qualified. “Okay; I get it,” I responded. “Always reject yourself first. It’s definitely cleaner and faster than holding out for the possibility that someone might actually want you.”

I observe perfectly smart and rational people rejecting themselves first all the time, and it makes me crazy. They overthink the odds, they underestimate their talents and they make it possible for fearless and not-so-smart people to scoop up plum roles, coveted awards and prized assignments. The next time you find yourself shaking your head at a hiring or award decision, consider the possibility that the good people were just too chicken to request consideration.

What keeps people from going for what they really want and probably even deserve? What makes certain people irrationally confident, and what can the more cautious learn from them?

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