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The Psychology of Looking for a Job


29Mar 2009

In the past weeks I have been listening to the media, reading articles that are coming out, and talking to a number of individuals who are looking for work. The level of job search ranges from high school students looking for a summer job, college graduates searching for their first full-time position in their area of study, and individuals who have recently been laid off. And I have made a few observations of my own.

First, a reminder “psychology” literally means “the study of the mind (psyche) or spirit”. That is, psychology really examines more than just cognitive thought but the whole of a person’s being — their personality, behavior, thoughts, feelings, and sense of self.

So when I talk about the psychology of looking for work, I am discussing how the process of looking for work impacts individuals in a variety of ways. Let me cite a few observations.

  • The process of looking for work is strongly intertwined with a person’s sense of self. Regardless of the type of job a person is looking for, they are having to “put themselves out there”. They essentially are attempting to “sell” themselves as potential employees, trying to convince the potential employer that they have the right character qualities and skill set for the job. Most of us don’t like rejection, and we don’t readily put ourselves into positions where we will regularly experience it (which is what typically happens when you look for a job).
  • As a result, (stating the obvious here), looking for work takes a lot of emotional and psychological energy. That is why so many people procrastinate.  Borrowing from physics, it takes a lot more energy to get a static object to move than it does to keep it moving. So, people looking for work really have to gather themselves, “pull themselves together”, and “psych themselves up” to get out and apply for positions. It just takes a lot of energy.
  • Additionally, the process of applying for jobs and repeatedly being turned down feeds “negative thinking”. When we receive repeated negative feedback (“Thanks for your application; however, we have found other applicants who are more suited to the position”), we begin to have negative thoughts — either about ourselves, or the future. This is natural, but must be combated, otherwise, we will become significantly discouraged and give up.
  • Individuals who are successful in finding jobs tend to engage in habits that support them during the job-search process. Success in finding work is not “chance”, as many seem to believe. Rather, if you consistently observe those who are successful in securing a job, they tend to engage in many of the same patterns:

a) They persevere. They get up, get out of bed, (sometimes get out of the house), search for openings, go and apply, and follow-up with emails and phone calls.

b) They go through the actions even when they don’t feel like it. This is related, but it speaks to personal discipline and the internal fortitude to be successful in difficult times.

c) They have a plan of action, or routine, that they “work”. Sometimes it is looking at the on-line job sites and applying to three openings a day. Sometimes it is driving around town looking for “help wanted” signs, going in and filling out applications. Other times it is making 10 calls per day to places of work or individuals who may be helpful in connecting you to potential employers.

d) They have a support system they turn to for encouragement. Seeking employment is tiring and wearisome. Virtually everyone I know becomes discouraged (it almost always takes longer than anticipated to find a position) and needs encouragement. Those who persevere and succeed have a supportive family, friends with whom they can talk and receive encouragement, or a part of a social support group for individuals looking for work.

So, besides these principles potentially being helpful to those currently engaged in job-seeking, let me speak to the rest of us who are not, but probably have friends or family who are looking for work:

  • Be supportive and encouraging. Show interest and ask them how it is going, but also offer any help you can – introduce them to people you know who may have important connections; go with them (at least drive there with them) when they are going to put in an application; sit and listen to their experiences.
  • Have a realistic time frame. If you communicate that you are surprised how long it is taking them to find work, this will not be helpful. Take your “realistic” timeframe, and multiply it by at least two, if not three (two weeks = four to six weeks, for a summer job).
  • Affirm them as a person. Looking for work is brutal to one’s self-esteem — you feel like no one wants you or values who you are. Remind them of their strengths, their successes, and their positive qualities. Be as specific as possible.

These are difficult times for many. Let’s be supportive and work together to help one another during them.

 

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