Why Go For Opportunities When You Are Under-qualified

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I was invited to the Lisa Valentine Clark Show (BYU Radio) to do an interview as a follow-up to my post on tips for saying yes to more of the right opportunities. Lisa had so many great follow-up questions that we couldn’t possibly cover them all 20 minutes. So, I decided to create a short series of follow-up posts to answer some of those additional questions. This is the second in the series. 

Why do we fear being underqualified?

Before I even get into the reason you should consider taking an opportunity for which you are under-qualified, I just want to note that your belief of being “under-qualified” can be the problem itself. Your personal judgment about your qualifications may or may not be accurate. 

In my last post, one of the things I discussed was the research about how fewer women than men apply to jobs when they feel they are under-qualified. 

But what may actually be holding you back could be fears such as:

  • I don’t want to waste their time

  • I don’t want to get rejected

  • I don’t want to make a fool of myself

  • I don’t want to get the job and then get in over my head and fail

These are related to a fear of being negatively judged by others or having excessively high (and unrealistic) expectations of yourself – a part of the toxic impact of perfectionism. 

Perfectionism keeps people from achieving much higher levels of success and can even set you up for failure. 

This isn’t specific to traditional job applications or opportunities. Women entrepreneurs and small business owners, for example, are less likely than their male counterparts to ask for their true market value when setting prices for their work or bidding on contracts. While this is partly due to the real realities of gender discrimination and being undervalued compared to men in similar jobs, women who have these fears may also be inadvertently contributing to the problem. 

Sometimes, a lack of confidence and recognition for the value of their work also keeps women from being as successful as they can be in certain realms of their life and work. 

But what if you really are under-qualified? 

Now you might ask, what if I really am under-qualified? How would that look to an employer, or potential client or customer if I tried to go for an opportunity that they felt I really wasn’t qualified to do? 

First, when it comes to traditional job applications, it’s rare that someone meets 100% of the criteria. If you know you are the kind of person that struggles with low self-confidence or perfectionism, the likelihood that you may actually be a better fit than you think is pretty good. 

Second, if you actually get invited to interview for the position, you already meet many of the qualifications better than most other people who applied (unless you lied on your resume, which of course is unethical and not helpful to anyone involved). 

Any interview or invitation to discuss further your interest in an opportunity is useful data to help you adjust your self-perception of your abilities. However, a lack of an invitation is not necessarily useful data.

You’ll never really know unless you try - many times – and collect a lot more data. Often, we tend to rely too much on the negative comments and fears we tell ourselves as true data points. These are not necessarily good data points. 

What if you mess up the interview or a discussion about a great new opportunity?

Women, more than men, tend to feel they need to over prepare because they are not good enough, not ready, don’t know enough, and other similar reasons connected to the above fears. And then they judge themselves more negatively than needed if the opportunity doesn’t work out. 

There are many reasons an opportunity doesn’t end up working out. Sometimes it’s just not a great fit. What is most important is how you handle it. 

If you can exit gracefully thanking the person for their time, handle the discussion with poise, and are thoughtful, considerate, and professional, people remember that. And they are more likely to hold on to your contact information for other potential opportunities that they assess could be a better fit. 

And this works in an amazingly iterative manner, similar to other networking: the more people that have obtained information about the work you do and what you believe to be your strengths – even if it doesn’t work out with them - the more likely they are to think of you for their colleagues or recommend other opportunities to you. 

If you keep it to yourself for fear of failure or negative judgment, no one will ever find out about your work and interests.

If you don’t put yourself out there, those opportunities will not appear for you. 

With respect to traditional job opportunities, here’s one final point to keep in mind: Often, the employer doesn’t always know fully what they are looking for when they post a position. They think they do. But let’s say you have something special on your resume they hadn’t considered. And they have this new unexpected project you’d be perfect for that they didn’t describe in the position they wrote up. What a great potential opportunity to find a great fit (and what a huge loss on both sides if you had never connected).

With respect to contracted work, such as in consulting and coaching fields, the same concept also applies. Often, potential clients might not know exactly what they need. It’s often in the discovery process, that you realize you can offer a unique perspective or skill that would be suited to their needs. If you don’t seek to open yourself up to evaluate this fit of an opportunity, you are likely restricting many potential new opportunities like these. 

What if you do seek and accept a new opportunity, despite feeling under-qualified, and you don't do well?

First, it’s highly unlikely you actually got offered a job or opportunity that someone else thought you were under-qualified for. That’s likely your own internal fearful thoughts taking over. 

More often than not, most people are a bit under-qualified for new opportunities: if it’s new, then there will be at least one or more variables that you’ve never faced, such as a new company, a new setting, new issues, new people. 

Instead, think of this as a new opportunity to gain new skills and become better. And like any new learning opportunity, surround yourself with the right resources and tools, including:

  • Seeking out mentors and colleagues who are willing to help you become established in the new role, 

  • Leaning on social support outside the setting of this new opportunity in order to gain feedback and support, 

  • Asking for help or feedback, and 

  • Seeking out more education and training if needed to fill an identified gap. 

If after all this, it doesn’t work out, consider it a learning opportunity and new data you have gathered about your professional development gaps that need more focus, rather than a failure. 

Overall, have the mindset that you will never be perfect and if you want to grow and be better, you will always need to stretch yourself into uncomfortable situations in order to learn. 

In Part 3 of this series, I will be discussing the flip perspective: why (and when) you should go for opportunities that may not immediately appear to be a perfect fit with your goals. Stay tuned!

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This post originally appears in Psychology Today online on January 26, 2019. Copyright 2019, all rights reserved by Mira Brancu/Brancu & Associates. A special thank you to Jennifer Dubow of Jennifer Dubow Consulting for her thoughtful review and edits to this post.