Thursday, April 26, 2012

Seven Lessons From Long-Term Unemployment

Seven Lessons From Long-Term Unemployment: 
Thoughts on Networking and the End of My Search For Work
By Scott Pickard, SPHR
There is a truism that says, “The teacher learns more than his students.”  I have learned many things as a coach, consultant, trainer, support group moderator (and participant), and a job seeker, and the over-arching concept that prefaces everything else is that there are no new ideas out there, no matter how many new books and magazine articles are published.  Instead, what seems to matter most is hearing these ideas restated and repeated.  Sometimes you hear an old idea in a new way, or it registers when your mind is open differently, and something clicks.  I have learned that getting out and meeting with people is probably the most important act I could do - not only to cope with long-term unemployment, but to grow as an empathetic human being.  Reading “helpful tips” will only get me so far; interacting with others puts the ideas into practice, and from there progress is made.
There is another truism I’ve learned and presented to coaching clients and support group participants: there are as many “experts” out there as there are people willing to talk.  It doesn’t matter with whom you speak; what matters is that you speak with someone who motivates you.  My friend and mentor, Cleon Cox, says that a comment he often hears from recently employed networkers is that people began to see change in their lives once they changed themselves.  There are countless permutations of that sentiment attributed to philosophers and self-help gurus through the ages from around the world.  It reinforces the idea that there are many roads to wisdom - we simply have to be willing to do the work to get onto one of them, and persevere.
When I start my new job on Monday, I will end a period of unemployment spanning three years, two months, three weeks, and four days.  No, I didn’t count the days as the calendar kept advancing - I had to figure it out today.  (The number of days that were passing became almost meaningless after the first six months, except on the anniversaries, whose emotional effects were progressively crushing.)  I have experienced the extreme highs and lows of unemployment, which are incomprehensible to those who have not been without work for more than a few weeks or months.  Those who care about us would like us to feel better, and rarely know how to help.  They offer platitudes that make them feel better, but which do little or nothing to improve our outlook.  In fact, encouraging statements like “Your new job is just around the corner” are more likely to frustrate than ameliorate.  Still, we try to accept these sincerely-offered clichés on face value, understanding the good intentions behind them.
It is difficult to describe how one feels after losing a job, burning through the whole savings account, losing a home, and living with parents and family to survive.  For someone who has been unemployed for years, no words can adequately convey the resentment that accompanies the unpersonalized automated email that says “While we were impressed with your résumé, we are moving forward with other candidates who better match our required qualifications,” or the despair of coming in second for a job again and again.  Even worse is when we hear nothing at all - we are simply ignored.  It is dehumanizing.  
When politicians and pundits talk so cavalierly about those who have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits and have “given up,” or quote unemployment numbers that are politically convenient to their own purposes, those of us in that sinking lifeboat cringe with a mixture of humiliation and utter contempt for the clueless out-of-touch politicians.  We have not given up, we simply lost our visibility.  We no longer have a voice.  And it is difficult to see our own future when the present looks so dark. 
Fortunately we have our “up” moments, too: when a recruiter contacts us, or when we get that interview.  After some time and experience, we (hopefully) learn how to moderate the height to which those “ups” take us, understanding that the higher we fly, the harder we fall if it doesn’t pan out.  And it often doesn’t; that’s a part of life.  What we have to learn is how to appreciate the “downs” to gain an understanding of the “ups.”
While I was growing up, and things weren’t coming to me the way I wanted, my mom would say to me, “All in good time.  You have your own timetable, and others have theirs.”  It was frustrating to hear this - I wanted [it] NOW - but it was an important lesson to learn.  Much more recently, she sent me a quote (paraphrased from a comment made by Michael C. Muhammad): “Everything works out right in the end; if it isn’t right, it’s not the end.”  This has been one of the most effective pieces of advice I have ever received, especially during the search for work.
Now, as I prepare to begin a job that both excites and daunts me, I begin to contemplate the lessons I’ve learned over the past three-plus years that have helped me the most.  These are the points I want to share with others who have faced the vagaries of the “Great Recession” and long-term unemployment.
Get Out of the House
I spent the first year of my job search sitting in front of my computer for hours reading online job boards, applying to as many jobs as I could, and getting depressed because “nothing is working.”  My personal life wasn’t much better, in part because I was in a dysfunctional relationship that distracted me from my true self and my own needs, and because my self worth kept bouncing along the “rock bottom” of my perceived world.  When the relationship ended (badly, I might add), I felt as if I were a total loser despite the fact that I was the one who ended it and for the right reasons.  I couldn’t possibly see at the time that asserting myself was actually the beginning of the improvement; I could only flail in the self-loathing that comes when you can’t find the door in the darkness.
At this point, I started doing things “just for me.”  I was staying with a friend in Long Beach, California who lives two blocks from the beach.  Over a period of several weeks, I continued doing my habitual job board search, and then spent a couple hours each day sitting on the sand reading beautiful fiction.  I allowed myself to escape the rigors of the “real world” and heal a bit.
Then I started networking.  I had the good fortune of learning how to network in the most networking-friendly city on the West Coast - Portland, Oregon.  Portlanders are lucky to have so many truly giving people leading so many networking groups simply to “give back” to the community.  I learned from Cleon that the key to success wasn’t in sending the application; it was that in the act of networking, we learn how to stand up with our self-esteem despite how many times we get knocked down.  His mantra of “Have Fun, Meet People, and Learn Something” really works.  We still look for opportunities; we still send out applications; and we learn and grow, and rebuild our self-worth along the way.  The search for work is more than just finding a job. 
Stay Active - Physically and Mentally
One activity I never dropped was working out at the gym.  We have all read studies that prove physical activity lowers stress and helps our body and mind cope with the pressures of life.  I now had the time to devote to the gym, so I figured I ought to take advantage of it.    I cannot say I felt better because of my time at the gym, because I have been working out for a couple decades - I can only assume it helped.  I have improved (slightly) in terms of my shape, and I often wonder if this is what has kept me from having to take advantage of free (or low cost) healthcare more than I have, since I’ve been without health insurance for two years.  I’m passionate about eating right and exercising, and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Staying active also gave me opportunities to interact with others outside the job search arena.  It helped me feel somewhat “normal,” and while these excursions didn’t lead to job opportunities, they did lead me to feeling better.  I worked on my hobby of glass art, and as my instructors understood my current difficulties, they offered me ways to continue to practice my glass work almost free of charge by giving me work to do in exchange for torch and kiln time.  I was able to focus my attention on something creative and (eventually) beautiful.  It kept my mind active.  Every little bit helps.
Network, Network, Network
Meeting others with whom we share certain commonalities is crucial to surviving long-term unemployment.  I believe striking a balance between networking with unemployed people and employed individuals is key.  And it can’t all be about work.
It took me a long time to really get the hang of networking.  It’s fairly easy for me to talk to people - we all like to give out information and advice - and by participating more and more with others, both employed and unemployed, I had an opportunity to discuss what I love to do and why I love to do it.  I was reminded of the joy I feel when I’m doing what I love, and why it was important to continue looking for the right opportunities.
I met some instrumental colleagues and mentors - the aforementioned Cleon Cox, as well as Seth Miller, Dick Warn, Virginia Trombley, Jenny Sherman, Joel Conarton, and many others, each adding to my consciousness their own brand of guidance, advice and support.  Each offered me the chance to expand my network by introducing me to others.  There are a few that come to mind whom I’ve never actually met - like Andrew Grossman, a brilliant young man who is a master at social network marketing, with whom I’ve only connected online and someone I admire immensely.  Every person - without exception - that I have met through networking has enriched my life in some fashion.  That’s not hyperbole; I mean it.
The day I reached 500+ connections on LinkedIn was a good day for me - not because that made me influential or powerful, or even that I can keep in constant contact with that many individuals, but because it demonstrated to me how many people have impacted my life.  We are not alone in our search for work.  Both the employed and unemployed are helpful to us and often willing to lend a hand.  It simply felt good to see the number.
In the end, after hearing countless proclamations from newly-employed acquaintances that they would never again stop networking, I understood the value; you never know where the next conversation will take you, how it will edify you, and whom you will meet as a result.
It Is More Than a Numbers Game
Some people will tell you it’s a Numbers Game: the more people you meet, the more job applications you place, the closer you are to the eventual “yes.”  And on a certain level, I agree with this.  Action doesn’t necessarily create opportunity, but it does open us up to it.  One colleague suggests we are “only 250 people away from our next opportunity,” so the more hands you shake, the faster we get to the prize.  For many of us, though, this can be a bit simplistic; it takes more than simply meeting as many people as I can in a week to speed up the process of finding work.    
For those naturally-born “sales” people on whom rejection has no effect, I say by all means, go for it.  On the other hand, if you’re like me - someone who is looking for mutual value in every conversation - it’s not the number of people I meet that matters, but rather the quality of the interaction.  It is important to attend as many mixers and functions as possible, though my measure of success comes from meeting three or four people at that mixer and having meaningful, constructive conversations, not from collecting umpteen business cards.  I look for chances to meet outside the mixer and continue these connections; if I can’t think of a reason to sit down over coffee with the individuals standing in front of me, I’m not going to waste their time at the mixer and further hinder these networkers from finding their next opportunity.
Like so many other facets of life, it is a question of Quality vs. Quantity.  Quality wins every time.  (It is the speed of this Striving for Quality that can sometimes exasperate us.)
Keep Applying For Jobs Found Online
While we may get a small return on our investment of time, it is important to continue to apply for jobs we see posted online, and that we give this effort an appropriate percentage of our daily schedule.  It is true that roughly 80% of open positions are never posted on a job board, and a big chunk of those that appear were posted for compliance needs - the hiring manager already has someone lined up for the job, but the company policy (or law) requires a public advertisement.  Regardless, some jobs are obtained through blind application and without the help of an internal contact.  Some estimates suggest as many as 10% of all new-hires come through online applications.  
The job I start on Monday came from a blind online application; I am one of the 10%.  If it can happen for me, it can happen for you.
Give Yourself Permission
I am at times surprised at how empowering it is to allow myself some down time.  Sometimes it was the simple act of giving myself permission to take time off from the search (including the occasional weekend); sometimes it was permission to be depressed; occasionally, it was spending the money to visit someone in another city, or spend a nice day at the beach.  Whatever I could do to help the feeling of normalcy (or momentary escape) ended up benefitting me during the rest of the time spent diligently searching.  
Obviously, we cannot allow ourselves too much permission; in other words, we have to push ourselves to make progress even when we don’t feel like it.  No one else can do that for us (though some may try).  Motivation comes from within, and by giving ourselves an opportunity to rest, we can recharge our batteries and resume the search with renewed vigor and dedication.
Serve Others
One of the best things I did was take on the opportunity to moderate a job seekers networking group.  While I recognize the truth of the phrase “Doctor, heal thyself,” and admit that I, like most, find it easier to help others than to take my own advice, it was being in the service of others that I felt the most accomplished.  This pays off in several ways: I am building my network of people who trust me, and who then send me leads for jobs or other networking opportunities; I gain a sense of accomplishment by seeing those I’ve helped succeed; I am reminded that I have value, which I can then take to my next interview.  Networking alone would not have had nearly the impact I felt had I not sought opportunities to help others.
Another part of this lesson I learned from my mentors: to approach every networking opportunity with a view to first serve those whom I would meet.  The aspect of networking in Portland that first struck me was, instead of the typical “Chamber of Commerce” attitude of “Nice to meet you - what business can you bring me?” Portlanders would, by and large, say “Nice to meet you - how can I help you?”  Sure, there is the element of “Northwest Nice,” but that first impression is a lasting one.  Ultimately, by serving others, we help ourselves - a platitude that actually works.
The Not-So-Final Analysis
I don’t expect the new job to be the end of the story.  Life rarely hands us the “happily ever after” we seem to perpetually hope for.  Instead, this is probably just another change to my employment picture, and I hope to learn just as much from adapting to re-employment as I did from adapting to unemployment - maybe even more.  My hope is to be a better employee, a more empathetic hiring manager, and a more effective leader moving forward.  
And since the new job is not in Portland, I hope to take a page from the Rose City’s book and lead a job seekers support group in Southern California.  I will not stop networking; I want to continue giving back.
I am indescribably grateful to the numerous individuals who have helped me along the way.  No one succeeds alone, and I would not be able to write this today without the unfailing support of my loved ones, personal and professional.  It is my intention to continue to expand my network, and invite everyone interested to join me on this ongoing, ever-changing road to making a difference.

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