If You Want to be Awesome, Don’t Fall Into the Commodity Trap!

Seth Godin wrote in Linchpinif you want Joshua Bellto be awesome then don’t set yourself up to be a commodity. This also means avoiding employers who view its people like a replaceable cog in their giant machine. Going further up the stream this also imply avoiding employment agents who treat you like a commodity since they will likely work for companies who shares that perspective.

When the renowned violinist Joshua Bell pretended to be an incognito busker in L’Enfant Plaza subway station, he barely received any recognition for his music. Playing inside a subway station placed him as if he were a commodity violin player and only earned a tiny fraction of what he normally get playing at respectable concerts. Thus even a high-calibre skill can only shine on comparably high-calibre places like what Joshua Bell demonstrated.

Then, how do you detect these no-good pseudo-slave traders and safely avoid them? There isn’t an easy answer to that – like most problems in life. However I’ve dealt with many of these jokers in Singapore and you can use my experience to quickly recognize them on the first few minutes of contact and save you the grief.

First Indicator 

Do they spam you and ask for free information? Do they send you what looks like a mass mailer and asks these in addition to your résumé?

  • your number of years experience
  • your current salary
  • your expected salary

Anybody who takes 10 minutes to read your résumé should be able to deduce your “number of years experience”. That aside, this number may even be irrelevant to the vacancy he’s offering.

Likewise real employment agencies should be familiar with ballpark figures of salaries for most jobs and should be able to estimate your earnings based on your current employment details without asking you. If they think that they can’t match your current number, might as well they don’t spam you in the first place.

As for your asking your expected salary, this is just an easy way for them to negotiate down their offer. They’ll simply make an excuse saying that your expected increase must not be more than 20% of your current salary. Remember, just about any salaried jobs are already budgeted before they’re passed to these agents and they might just as well let candidates know what are they capable of.

Second Indicator

Job agent spam questions

Do they cold-call you and ask for irrelevant information? I mean do they ask for these things?

  • gender
  • age
  • ethnic group
  • marital status
  • religious affiliation

In most professional positions that I know, these are not relevant. Except maybe for actors/actresses vacancies that requires a specific “look” for the position and hence the gender/age/ethnicity question.

As for the last two questions, I can’t think of anybody else but matchmaking services who can appropriately ask these questions. It’s OK to ask your religion and whether you’re already married if you’re looking to wed the person but not when hiring an engineer.

However these may be acceptable questions after you got hired. They probably want to know your spouse for insurance reasons or as an emergency contact. Likewise maybe they want to make sure that they’re adequately staffed when you need to take two weeks out at the end of Ramadan.

Third Indicator

Are they reluctant to reveal who is the hiring company? If both the company and employment agency are respectable then there is no way you can bypass the middleman. Unless you know the hiring manager in person — but in such cases then the agency won’t be bringing any value to the table in the first place.

If it’s a shady company or the relationship is brittle then it’s understandable if the agency aren’t keen to disclose who is it they’re hiring for. But do you really want to get recruited by them? Because there’s a good chance that they are looking for cut-rate commodity workers.

Last but Not Least

Inbox  agent spams with abbreviations

Watch for unnecessary abbreviations, job agent jargons, spelling errors, use of capital letters, and general language use. Remember that birds of a feather tend to flock together – if they can’t really write good e-mail, chances are they’re also looking for people who aren’t very good at those things and thus are a commodity. You wouldn’t want to be rolled together as replaceable cogs, would you?


If you notice and read carefully, those indicators I’ve outline earlier signifies that the job agent focuses more on volume and doesn’t care much about quality. Asking for employment details that they can easily extract from your résumé means that they won’t take the time to read it and just want to plug you into their big spreadsheet of candidates. Spelling errors and abbreviations means that he/she was too pressed for time to write it properly – and thus clearly indicate a volume-oriented commodity employment agency. 

When to Ignore These

You can safely ignore these indicators when you are a commodity worker yourself or you have a below-average skill level for your chosen trade. You need to walk up the ladder, so to speak, to get your skill on par with the average. Then you can start rising above the commodity level and enter the premium market.

Likewise if you’re broke, unemployed, and desperate looking for a job — any job — then you can’t afford to be picky. Good jobs are rare, by definition, and the majority are commodity jobs that you should take anyway if you’re really pressed to pay the bills.

Good luck and keep the spirit up!



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4 thoughts on “If You Want to be Awesome, Don’t Fall Into the Commodity Trap!

  1. Seriously – you’ve been asked for your religious affiliation and/or ethnic group, @cutecoder:disqus? If you say so… I can understand the gender thing; they might just want to know to address you as Mr. Adibowo. On the other hand, as you said, when we take on people, further along in the process I’ll gently look to learn about people’s lives to understand their pressures and responsibilities.

    1. @SaulFleischman Ethnic group question is quite frequently asked here in Singapore. There’s even a field for it in most official forms, it’s part of the government’s “social harmony” program. Why do they want to ask this prior to interviews is beyond me.

  2. Great post. But you never address the alternative steps to take. You did a great job addressing what to avoid.

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