The Burns Rule

I’ve always wanted to share this with you. The best advice I’ve ever read about interviews came not from career-counseling books, but actually from a popular psychology book I read called “The Feeling Good Handbook” by David D. Burns. He’s a clinical psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

I will modify the content of his points in the section “Turning Failure Into Success” in the chapter “How to Give a Dynamic Interview When You’re Scared Stiff”, except for the last point, which I find the most important and I hope to preserve it entirely.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Key tip in most career-counseling-type books: Always have alternatives or Plan Bs! 🙂

Don’t base your self-esteem on how well you do. We are more than our performances. We are more than our outward appearances. We are people of value and worth, regardless how terrible we perform.

Don’t blame yourself for a rejection. Don’t be too harsh on yourself when you have made mistakes or have been foolish. We often are our worst critics. Be gentle and patient with yourself. 🙂 Transitioning is a tender period. Guard your heart! Don’t let it become too discouraged or wounded.

Don’t blame someone else for a rejection. Even if our interviewers disparage us, are mean to us, or do nasty things to us, let us be gracious to them. Let’s be honest, living in this world isn’t easy. Let’s be gentle with tough people. Thankfully most of the time interviewers are fair people.

Think about rejections as opportunities. I see rejections as chances to thicken my thin skin. Let your heart grow stronger but your skin grow thinner! Protect your heart, but allow each rejection to bolden you for the next one. I still have not mastered how to do this yet, but I hope by sharing this, I open your mind to potential threats and opportunities of rejections, so you will not just flow with the tide but are alert to protect yourself and capitalise on such opportunities.

Remember that an offer you don’t really want is worth its weight in gold. “This is the “Burns Rule”: People only want what they can’t get, and they never want what they can get. What it boils down to is this: trying to get the first offer can be tough. Since you’re what people can get, you’re not in demand. But once you get an offer, even if it’s not the one you want, you can easily get many more offers. Since you’re what people can’t get, you’re in demand. Everyone will want you.

Let me give an example of how this works. A divorced woman with two children applied for admission to graduate school in psychology. Her options were limited to programs in Chicago, where she lived, because she didn’t want her kids to have to change schools. She had her heart set on a highly competitive program at the University of Chicago, but knew her chances for admission were only marginal because of the large number of applicants. After her interview, she was informed that she had not been selected for the program, but she would be placed on a waiting list of alternate candidates.

Six weeks later another school, in a less desirable area and with only an average reputation, called to tell her that she’d been admitted but without financial assistance. She was told that she had to decide within two hours.

Her heart sank, because she still had the dream of attending the University of Chicago. She called me in a panic. She was distraught and wanted to know what to do.

I explained that this was her golden opportunity, and suggested that all she had to do was to call the University of Chicago and tell them that she was under pressure to accept an offer that very day from another school, so that if they were interested in her they’d have  to move quickly.

She was skeptical that this would do any good, but she called the admissions office and explained the situation to the secretary of one of the professors on the admissions committee. Within ten minutes the professor called back to inform her that they were extremely interested in her and if she would consider attending the University of Chicago, they would offer her free tuition plus a stipend of $8000 per year for living expenses. She immediately accepted and ultimately received her doctorate there.

Why was she suddenly accepted when she’d been ignored? Because she was in demand. They probably thought that if someone else was pressuring her to accept an offer, she was an incredibly desirable candidate. This made them want her as well. It’s basic human nature to want something that’s a little beyond our grasp, and this is true in school or job interviews.

If you want to take advantage of the Burns Rule, you should court every suitor when you’re applying for a position. Once you get an offer, even if it’s an unappealing one, you’re over the biggest hurdle because you’re in demand. Leak this information to the people you’re interested in. Let other interviewers know that you’ve had an offer, but that you like them very much and would be proud to consider their offer as well. If you do this in a friendly manner, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that you will suddenly get many offers.

You may object to this strategy, thinking it amounts to manipulation. In a way, you’re right. I felt a little guilty when writing this section. I was concerned that I might come off as exploitative or insensitive. If I offended you, I apologize. However, I felt that this information was necessary, because the people who conduct interviews wield great power. They’ve got what you want, and they are intentionally playing you off against many other candidates so they can get the best possible person to work for them or to attend their university. You need a little power too, to balance the situation. I want you to get the best possible offer so you’ll feel happy and excited about the opportunity just ahead of you. Then you’ll do the best job you’re capable of, and everyone will win.”

I honestly don’t know how you feel about it. But some of us are under the impression that we cannot let the company we are applying to know that we are actually applying to other companies. Maybe this might change your mind a bit.

Does it work for the Singaporean context?

Is it unethical? Manipulative?

Have you tried doing this and does it work?

Feel free to comment and discuss!

But I place this information here with the same intentions as the author, if it really does work (the bit about playing hard to get), I hope it helps you.

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