Monday, December 26, 2005

How to get a job (secrets from Craigslist)

Recently, I accomplished my longstanding, Hollywood-living-style goal of hiring a personal assistant. In addition to changing my life, going through the hiring process reminded me of something I've articulated before--if you want to know how potential employers decide whom to hire, try hiring someone yourself.

I placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a personal assistant. I listed a number of the tasks I wanted performed--basically, anything that frees me up to do higher value-added things--as well as some basic characteristics, along with the salary description and projected hours. I asked that candidates send an email describing why they were qualified and why they wanted the job.

And the torrent was unleashed! In the next 24 hours, I received more than 100 responses. A bunch of them were from clearly qualified people and it was hard to see how I would even select among them, so I took the post down. I felt some duty to make a rational decision, both for my own interests and to reward the best candidates, so I selected using a process of elimination.

First to go were any resumes that were simply attached without explanation. If someone wasn't going to spend five seconds to write any kind of cover, I didn't feel an obligation to review them, nor did I sense any great likelihood that they'd be any good. Next to go were those resumes that had a one or two sentence cover email of the generic, "here's my resume, I look forward to hearing from you" variety. Same reason.

Also dead-on-arrival were cover letters with major typos or grammatical errors. (Two applicants with B.F.A.'s from NYU in screenwriting wrote cover letters filled with sentence fragments and typos.) You get a wide variety in Craigslist, so these were divided between people who were merely sloppy and those who seemed to lack certain basic educational skills. Though I felt sad for the latter, I was not going to hire them.

I still had a hefty electronic pile to process. So I began identifying the ones that I actually liked, as opposed to ones that I could get rid of without guilt. There were a number of extremely, if not bizarrely, qualified candidates, including a lawyer who had gone to Oxford. So at this point I began to look for "fit" -- some sense that this job would be match for them. (If it wasn't, I would expect them to lose motivation or eventually find something else.) So the next group to get booted were candidates who, upon greater perusal, were probably looking for (or clearly needed) full-time jobs. Thus, several recent graduates of Vassar were screened out.

At this point, I had about a dozen candidates who met the criteria: they seemed professional and reliable, and they also seemed to want this type of limited part-time job with someone like me. Looking more closely again, I distinguished between the ones who thought it would be interesting to work around a cool career coach (hooray!) versus those that indicated the need for career coaching themselves (too high maintenance).

Finally I picked three women and one man for phone interviews. I added one more when she made a follow-up inquiry (extra points for effort). I asked four basic, "behavioral-style" questions: I asked them to illustrate times when they'd shown resourcefulness; done things that required trust (like handling money); performed tasks that were tedious but managed to get them done; and handled some kind of office-technology-software issue. Most did very well on these questions, although one found them difficult.

Then I decided on my two finalists, whom I met for in-person interviews. The first one was great. The second one arrived 15 minutes late. Easy choice.

So the big takeaway point here is: in the end, basic professional behavior and tailoring one's application for the actual requirements of the job can make a big difference, even with a giant internet pool like Craigslist. Employers are really looking for a reason why a candidate can fit a particular position; the more you articulate how that works, the higher your chances are for getting the job.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What secrets does my DNA hold?

I'm sitting on the edge of my seat...

A few weeks ago, I received the DNA testing kit I'd ordered from the National Geographic Society. I scraped the inside of my cheeks with the little scraper-thing, deposited the tip into tiny test tubes, and mailed them off! Now I'm waiting for my DNA code to be received, split and classified.

For those who haven't followed this particular scientific development, there are now all kinds of services you can use to trace your origins and determine your ancestry. And apparently, there are many surprises since our ethnic identity, like so many other things, is basically just a convenient label for much more complex and hard-to-classify mixtures.

My initial motivation was to answer the age-old question: is Michael Melcher secretly Jewish? (I'm Catholic on both sides... or at least that's what they tell me.) Did I have some ancestors who couldn't quite take the heat, so they switched over? Like many Americans, I have only the vaguest idea of my ancestry beyond my grandparents. I have a Mexican line (with a Basque surname) and a German line but am not really sure what-all is going on there. So this is an opportunity I could not pass up!

The National Geographic test takes you WAY back -- apparently all the way to your emigration from Africa, 60,000 to 120,000 years ago. I have no idea how they actually determine this, but I am quite eager for the results!

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

What my dentist and Pauline Kael have in common...

I have the best dentist in New York City. During a recent visit to his office, I was reminded of some advice I heard several years ago from the former New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael.

First, some background about my dentist, Dr. Jonathan Ferencz. It's not your typical gross, underinvested medical practitioner office. His office is gleaming but sedate, has a view of the Empire State Building, a professional and friendly staff, and really good magazines. (No old issues of "Modern Maturity.") And his appointments always start on time. ALWAYS. I initially came to Dr. Ferencz for an implant, my final resting place after a long and painful journey that had featured a botched filling replacement, multiple failed root canals, a strange pus-filled bubble in my gums (don't ask) and a split molar that had to be removed by an oral surgeon. Oy! But these worries were forgotten when I was placed under his capable care. He charges significantly more than my previous dentists but it's more than worth it.

Why do I bring this up? Well, after this morning's appointment (gold inlay following a distal crown lengthening by the periodontist), I was reflecting on how, even though going to the dentist is kind of scary, it's not really scary when you have complete confidence that your dentist knows what he or she is doing. And of course, this is true generally--trust is worth a lot. It's really quite an amazing experience when someone takes his or her profession seriously enough to do their best, and make investments to deliver high-quality service.

Which brings me to Pauline Kael. Some years ago, when I was living in Calcutta, I happened to see a video interview with her. Someone asked her about the career of being a film critic, and she said something similar to the following:

"Ninety percent of the people in the world are just punching a clock at work, whether they're film critics or bricklayers. But the remaining ten percent do really amazing work and contribute something meaningful. So in thinking about your career, you ideally want to aspire to be part of the ten percent, rather than looking at the ninety."

I've followed this advice over the years. I've been in some careers that are prestigious, and other careers that are nontraditional if not bizarre, but in every case I've found her words to be true. Ignore what most people do. Instead, if it's something that works for you, aim to be your own best self. It doesn't matter if you are selling real estate or decoding DNA. Be part of the ten percent, not the ninety, and stop worrying what other people think.

Be like Dr. Ferencz!

Monday, November 28, 2005

What I'm reading now... A Whole New Mind, by Dan Pink, and I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe.

One characteristic I still retain from my childhood is that I read a lot of books. In a media-saturated world, books are still the best source for interesting and well thought-out ideas. I'll post some of my current and long-time favorites here. I'm also listing, where relevant, my inspiration for reading particular authors.

A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. Pink argues that traditional employment over the past 50 to 75 years has focused primarily on left-brain jobs--things like finance, law, software development and medicine. But as a result of automation, the growth of Asian economies and a higher level of prosperity, these jobs are going away and in any case are no longer stimulating. He argues that going forward, employment will incorporate six right-brain skills, including design, story telling, empathy, and symphony (i.e. synthesis). Although I was initially skeptical of Pink's macro assessment of the world, every one of the chapters on right-brain skills described my own personal and career evolution.


I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe's treatment of college life at a thinly disguised Duke University is very witty and unexpectedly riveting. A great airplane read, although, to be brutally honest, less true to life than The Student Body, the novel about a non-disguised Harvard College that I co-authored several years ago under the pseudonym, "Jane Harvard."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Unleashed upon the world...


The Michael Melcher blog is here! Look out, world!

Okay, let me go and find some stuff to put on here. Not to worry, this will be a HIGH-QUALITY production. I'll do the editing so you won't have to!

-- Michael

Saturday, October 01, 2005