The chap who wrote the 70’s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull also wrote a much less well-know book called Illusions, in which he compared life to the experience of falling into a raging torrent. You just get swept along, buffeted by the current, overwhelmed and panicked by the fear of sinking or injuring yourself on rapids, or drowning in one of the many eddies and whirlpools. So, rather than take stock and work out a calm plan for survival, you just flail around, reaching out for any rescue from your terrible situation. After several bends in the river, gasping and spluttering, you are swept under an old overhanging branch of a partially submerged tree, and you cling on with all your might. Phew! you think, I’m safe! But the river is raging so fast, it’s all you can do to hang on; there simply isn’t the purchase to climb up the tree to safety on the shore. So you cling on, gradually becoming weaker, colder, frightened, stuck in a sort of limbo – you’re not drowning but life certainly ain’t grand. But you’re too scared to let go, so you keep clinging on.
Meanwhile, around the next bend, 50 metres further downstream, the river levels out and widens into a more sedate flow, and there’s a broad island with a sandy beach where, if only you had kept calm, you could easily have reached in the calmer waters and dried out in the warm morning sun.
So maybe that’s a bit corny; but I read this about 30 years ago and the image stuck because it does seem to reflect how most people treat their working lives – or even their lives full stop. They fall into unemployment (usually after school or university), start sinking financially and so, desperate to find a financial foothold, they just rush into the first job that will take them and cling on even when the job is hardly even keeping their heads above water financially; or when they are bored rigid, or hate their boss. Because the fear of unemployment is so great they daren’t leave their jobs or risk looking for anything better. Sometimes people lose their jobs later in their lives, in mid or late career and the whole thing happens again. This time, the search for a job is even more urgent because the extra financial responsibilities of being “married; a wife, children, house – everything. The full catastrophe” as Zorba the Greek put it – is the equivalent of falling into a river with a fully loaded 40 kilo rucksack pulling you under. So the need to find a safe refuge is even stronger, and the panic is all the greater.
But it really is critical to work out what it is you like doing and what it is you are good at – Ken Robinson’s “The Element”: the point at which natural talent meets personal passion – to help guide your job search. Otherwise you’re just allowing yourself to be swept along on the current, the victim of random eddies and whorls, like the man in the story. You are also much more likely to succeed in your job if you find it intrinsically interesting.
One of the best ways that I know to work this out is in a book called “What Color is your Parachute” by Richard Bolles. This is one of the all-time best selling job hunting books. I first read it in 1992, and re-read it again in 1997, and again just last week. What struck me from my most recent reading is how much the book has changed, and how contemporary it is. Boles himself says that ‘it’s changed its shape and content. It’s morphed into something very different, over time. The 2012 edition is quite different even from the 2011.’
He’s right: the book I read last week is quite a lot different to the one I read in 1997, with extensive coverage of social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, etc. Overall, I think it’s an excellent book. There are a couple of chapters which have an unusual (to a UK audience) religiosity to them – Bolles used to be a Baptist Minister – which one person I recommended to complained about. To be fair to him, Bolles puts the religious chapters in the Appendices, so you can skip those if you find that a turn-off. It didn’t bother me. The vocabulary is a little American in tone and spelling (words like ‘Color’ and’Resume’) and the resources he cites tend to be US-centric, so less relevant to the UK market.
But overall, it’s superbly comprehensive, covering everything from the psychological to the practical. There’s a chapter on how to keep morale up (called “How to Find Hope”); and, crucially, “The need to Understand More Fully Who You Are”. This is covered in Chapter 5, where there is a systematic workbook for teasing out what you like doing and what you are good at. Chapters 6 and 7 then help you work out how to apply that to identifying a job that might suit you, to help focus your job search.
I very strongly recommend that anyone about to start on a job hunt complete the exercises in Chapter 5 of What Color is your Parachute. Frankly, if you are serious about finding a job, you should read the whole book not once but twice. In particular, people who are trying to change careers will find it very helpful. At the very least, it will help you answer, in detail and with conviction, a whole range of standard interview questions, such as: “What are you best at? What are your weaknesses? What are the achievements you are proudest of in your life? In your professional life?” , etc. At best, it may even give you clarity on what your “Element” is.
Most importantly, it will give you a solid foundation for your active Job Hunt, to start identifying jobs or sectors you want to investigate further (the methodology for which I set out in the section called Va Va Voom).
If all this talk about finding your Element sounds a bit airy fairy, let me give you an example. My cousin’s Element, from the age of 10, was dance. He was lucky. He knew what he loved to do, and he happened to be good at it. He started dance lessons, progressed well and won prizes. All was well until he turned 14 or 15. At this stage, he faced two choices: continue down a conventional academic education, and continue dance lessons on the side. Or join a dance academy to focus on his Element. But my Aunt had a First in English from Cambridge. She understood the importance of having a good education and a degree. She also knew the reality of how few dance students are able to make a living as dancers: the dance schools produce way too many graduates for the number of jobs out there. So the sensible thing would be for him to continue with a normal education, and maybe come back to dance once he had graduated. Problem is, if he wanted to be a professional dancer, that would probably be too late, as he would be competing with all the kids who had gone to dance school from early teens. So.. what to do?
The key to solving this problem was not to be too narrow-minded about the outcome. My cousin loved dance so, clearly becoming a dancer would be a good outcome. But it was by no means the only one. There are a huge range of jobs associated with dance which he could also consider if he could not get a job as a dancer, for example: a dance teacher, a choreographer, a dance journalist, a dance set designer, a theatre manager, a dance photographer, a writer, a dance studio manager, a dance clothes designer, a sound technician, a lighting expert, etc. So, in fact the options after dance school were not as starkly narrow as one might think, given the wide range of related areas where he could redirect himself, all of which would tap into his passion for dance. So my Aunt relented, and off he went to the Birmingham Ballet Dance Academy and, I am happy to say, he joined the Corps de Ballet of the Royal Dance School at Covent Garden about 6 months ago.
Clearly, if you have dependents who rely on you for financial support, you can’t simply up sticks and become an artist on the Rive Gauche in Paris. Equally, you may struggle to make it as a dancer if you’re already in your twenties or thirties. As you get older more doors close to you. But on the whole, far fewer of those doors are permanently closed than you might imagine. It’s just that most of us don’t bother opening them for fear of the unknown, or because we just assume the doors are locked and don’t even bother testing the handles.
That’s why I also recommend job hunters read an excellent book called ‘Feel the Fear and do it Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers, who died only a couple of weeks before I wrote this piece, in November 2012. For people who are busy clinging on to that partially submerged branch, too fearful or lacking in self-confidence to even begin to look for a more rewarding job, it’s an invaluable resource to keep morale up, and t give you the confidence to let go of that branch.