How to Squeeze out More from Your Job Search
If you were expecting an article packed with practical tips to find a job, you’ll be disappointed. Though I admit I shamelessly chose a seductive title.
A few months ago, I started the daunting job search process along with my classmates. It’s fraught with uncertainty and emotional upheaval. But rather than simply a means to an end, it can be good training for the inevitable stressors that follow it (yes, this is a philosophical, cringey post).
Ironically, we often proactively pursue challenges and even proclaim to enjoy “problem-solving”. So why is this particular challenge so nerve-wracking? Disneyland offers some clues (bear with me, I haven’t lost my marbles just yet).
Think about two types of rides - a rollercoaster and a drop tower dark ride.
My experience shows people find rollercoasters thrilling but dark drop towers frightening.
I propose two primary reasons for this.
First, there is less uncertainty with a rollercoaster since you can see the journey beforehand - the loops, length and general nature of the “challenges”. With the tower you’re literally in the dark. Second, a rollercoaster is a relatively smooth journey while the tower has jerky raises and drops. Speed alone can be exciting, but frequent and sharp changes in direction aren’t something most people seem comfortable with.
I contend jobseekers in academic settings have a bigger mental hurdle to overcome than others because they’ve grown accustomed to rollercoaster-like challenges. We can see our schedules, assignment details and deadlines well in advance. We can even anticipate the period of job stress as soon as we’re admitted, since we know our graduation date. This is of course very different from the “real world”.
Getting a job you like is the one task during the programme where you have to interact with the chaos of the world outside your institution’s bubble. I sense most people would like and even expect the job search to feel something like image 1 below and get thrown off when it feels more like something in image 2.
The process is filled with information asymmetry. You can’t see if or when employers are creating new positions, adjusting their budgets, reviewing your application and discussing your candidacy versus those of others. You’re at the mercy of the information they publish or share with you.
Although you can sometimes gather additional insight through proactive outreach, it doesn’t change the equation meaningfully. This contributes to feelings of sharp positive and negative turns.
As an example, a friend of mine had an offer from one of the most well-known companies in the world last year, only to learn soon after getting it that they no longer had the budget for it.
Even in more normal proceedings, each application update, interview invite and post-interview decision feels like a sudden event, since you lacked any definitive information outside these communications.
Is there a “so what”?
This type of uncertainty and resulting emotional activity is also common once you’re actually doing a job, especially if you work in a startup or scaleup. So the self-management skills you build during the job search process can come in handy in the long run.
Naturally, there is more stability once you’re employed, but anyone that’s worked in a startup knows the journey is rarely smooth. Depending on your role, you can deal with challenges like not knowing whether you’ll have funding to make payroll next month; abruptly filling in for a function new to you; facing a long-standing or recently hard-won client walking away; and a new regulation upending your business model.
Some of these problems are also prevalent in established corporations. In fact, since we already discussed Disneyland, I highly recommend Bob Iger’s autobiography. The prologue alone powerfully illustrates that unexpected and dramatic events are a given in the workplace.
Below are three pearls of wisdom that helped me manage over the last few months. I’m sure you can discover more.
- Focus on systems instead of goals. Many authors including Scott Adams have preached this. My summary of it is instead of spending most of your mental energy directly on a desired end outcome, spend it on developing habits and practices that improve the probability of the outcome.
- Measure progress using controllable inputs. When you look for markers of progress, it’s unhelpful to rely solely on external signals. The percentage of applications that lead to interview invites, for example, is affected by extraneous factors and also incomplete as an insight (you can’t observe résumés getting reviewed or lost). I found it productive to focus on factors I had direct visibility into and influence over. An example was my level of calmness during interviews (real or mock). I didn’t have a spreadsheet to track these, but redirecting my awareness toward them made the ride feel more like image 1 than image 2 above. This advice, perhaps a platitude, is based on Amazon’s approach to design business metrics.
- Don’t crave perfection - either an optimal environment or ideal preparation. Both are an illusion. To conclude, here is a quote by the late Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita (credit to Oliver Burkeman for sharing it).
“Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die."