Job seeking? Ditch EQ and pitch grit.

by Nik Crain


It is an extraordinary time to be a job seeker. Today more than ever, you have the opportunity to define and tell your own career story. From LinkedIn and Twitter to a personal website, an interactive résumé or whatever other, um, medium you choose, there’s ample opportunity to define the “professional you.”

Many job seekers I work with have an innate understanding of the social media landscape and know where they can tell their story. They may have also un-successfully sent out enough generic résumés to know they need to better brand themselves and intelligently grow their network. The challenge lies with what story to tell and what brand to develop.

Coder? UX designer? Big data analyst? Your skills tell enough of your story to get you noticed.

Good with people? Interculturally competent? Adaptable? Your story weaving likely needs some work. This is the group of people with whom I work.

In my conversations with returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), it’s clear they have developed and demonstrated two important sets of soft skills: grit and emotional intelligence. Both will serve them well in their careers. But for the job seeker, you should really focus your story on just one of them.

First, some definitions.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is hard to measure, hard to increase and hard to highlight in an interview. But it was a popular buzzword (and book) among managers and executives in the mid- to late ‘90s and continues to be relevant today.

Being emotionally intelligent in the workplace means a lot of things:

  • You possess self-awareness — the ability to understand your own emotions and how you react to them.
  • You possess self-management — the ability to keep your emotions from negatively affecting your work.
  • You possess social awareness — the ability to listen actively and be empathetic to how co-workers or clients are feeling.
  • You possess social skills — the ability to develop relationships and work more effectively with co-workers or clients through your empathy and connection to them.

You can see how it would be great to be surrounded by emotionally intelligent co-workers and managers. But EQ is not the soft skill I want less-experienced job seekers to base their “hire me!” pitch on.

Why not? Because a good career story tells an employer what you can bring to their organization. And, depending on the type of manager with whom you’re dealing, they’re likely to think their team has ample EQ already or they might be intimidated by your soft skills. Here are a couple of ways pitching EQ can go:

Scenario 1: The manager interviewing you thinks she is a great manager (most managers do). So as you’re describing your stellar self-awareness and people skills, she’s wondering why she should hire you. As a fabulous manager, she already brings enough wonderful EQ traits to the team — what would you add to the organization?

Scenario 2: The manager thinks he’s incredibly competent with the hard skills but feels less confident about his EQ soft skills. Think about it: Most managers got ahead by producing quality results as an employee, by gaining enough institutional knowledge to be promoted and/or by getting an MBA or other advanced degree. They didn’t necessarily end up in management because of their skills in smoothing over dysfunction, motivating people toward a shared goal or helping co-workers identify and overcome obstacles to professional growth. Thus your pitch explaining how you excel in those areas could be intimidating.

So how do you land that first role? By pitching grit.

While EQ burst onto the job skills scene in the ‘90s, grit has seen a renaissance over the last few years. No, it’s not a new idea; yes, you can call it a number of different things. Tenacity. Stick-to-it-iveness. Perseverance. Determination. Resolve. Getting stuff done. From tech startups in high-growth environments to nonprofit organizations with more mission than manpower, employers need people who can overcome challenges and limited resources to get things done.

Yes grit, like EQ, is a little buzzwordy. Yes, even one of the biggest proponents of it still isn’t sure how best to test for it. But that’s not important because grit is something that hiring managers can latch onto — and that’s exactly what you need. Whether your past projects were successes or failures — and, believe it or not, the guts to fail is something companies look for — a pitch heavy with examples of resolve and ability to see work through to the end will be something that resonates with a manager. They’ll be able to easily envision how you’ll apply this skill set to the challenges they need you to address. And that’s not intimidating. That’s exciting.

How do you tell stories of grit? For returned Peace Corps Volunteers and other development professionals or expat employees, examples abound. Give examples of creatively completing projects despite losing funding. Talk about working on a timeline and how you developed organization and prioritization skills as a result of only having electricity a few hours a day or Internet access a few times a month. Tell stories of investing long hours with the village chief or local bureaucrat simply to get buy-in and approval for a community project. Joke about overcoming cultural missteps and successfully implementing lessons learned. Stress the importance of not giving up and not going home. And, yes, share those horror stories about traffic, public transportation and a new appreciation for toilet paper — but maybe not until after you’ve pitched grit and gotten hired.

Think about all of the ways you’ve demonstrated grit. Tell those stories on LinkedIn and in your cover letter. Work examples into your résumé and your answers to interview questions. Communicate to people in your network that you’re a doer.

Do these things and get hired. Then open up your emotional intelligence toolbox and start building your own career ladder.

Nik Crain provides career support for returned Peace Corps Volunteers as a Peace Corps Career Development Specialist. He is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Romania), Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and a former international travel guru (Backroads). You can find him pedaling the streets of Berkeley — but looking on LinkedIn would be faster.