Being overwhelmed used to be a temporary situation for most people, but lately I think it’s become our national identity.
Remember when you received a few dozen emails a day, not hundreds? Or when you turned on your computer and it didn’t beg for updates?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to pursue this theme. I’m just searching for something to explain why normally capable, world-conquering workers at all levels would suddenly lose the ability to solve problems as job seekers. I know self-confidence and other emotional factors play a part, but that’s a closed loop: The more steam one loses in the search, the more self-esteem one loses, and vice versa. But what starts the loop in the first place?
My current hypothesis is that job search is the straw that broke the overwhelmed camel’s back. Our circuits are overloaded with the demands of daily existence, leaving little in reserve for a major project such as job search.
Whatever the cause, I can’t ignore the symptoms: I hear every day from people who are blocked from progress by problems they don’t know how to solve or obstacles that feel too big to challenge.
Luckily, the solution is very simple. When faced with one of these situations myself, first I ask, “Has anyone ever done this?” and then I ask, “How?” I’ll demonstrate with some of the job search problems I’m asked about.
1. When the dream seems unobtainable. A woman explained her goal of selling jewelry on the Internet. “It’s my passion, but the market’s too crowded,” she said. “I could never make any money.” To which I answered, “Is anyone at all, even one person, making money at it?” When she said she assumed so, the next step was clear: “You need to find out if anyone, anywhere, makes a living this way. If the answer is yes, as I think it must be, then you need to find out how they’re doing it. If the answer is no, then figure out how you can do it better.”
If you’re thinking, “Well, sure, but how’s she going to find that out?” then you’ve earned a gold star. That’s exactly the right question: How? Except that she needs to ask it seriously, not rhetorically, and then get to work.
2. When your circumstances can’t be changed. I am regularly informed by job seekers that no one is hiring older workers. These assumptions are particularly dangerous because they’re paired with something that can’t be changed: one’s age. Nevertheless, the formula still works: “Really? No one your age has gotten hired for anything, anywhere, in the past six or 12 months?” Of course, that’s not true.
So my question will always be: OK, others are doing it. How? How can you find a decent job, regardless of your age? Or even, how can you use your age as an advantage?
3. When your goal has never been achieved by anyone else. This is rare, but I occasionally meet someone with a completely new idea for a product or job. Although they can’t make apples-to-apples comparisons to others, they can still uncover strategies by looking at similar breakthroughs in other fields. When someone is skeptical that something can be done at all, I ask them, “Well, OK, but if it were possible, how would you do it?” If you can visualize even the first step, you can usually see a way through.
4. When small details hold up the show. I often hear from job seekers, “I can’t reach out to the department manager because I can’t find the name.” To answer, I’ll sometimes draw a parallel to television dramas where the main character is given 24 hours to save someone’s life by coming up with the ransom. This is obnoxious, but I’ll say, “Suppose your young daughter was kidnapped and you could save her by finding the department manager’s name by next Tuesday. Could you do it?” Of course, the answer is yes, to which I’ll reply: “So you could do it if something important to you was hanging in the balance. Isn’t your career, your happiness and your ultimate re-employment ‘something important’?”
If your answer to that question is yes, then you know what to do: Ask yourself what’s holding you back and how you can overcome it. Then get going.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.