Optimism can be bad for your job search. (Not to mention the rest of your life.)
During the two year period between March 2008 and March 2010 (what I “affectionately” refer to as The Drought), I spent quite a bit of time at LaunchPad Job Club. One of the things I heard most frequently while at LPJC was how upbeat and optimistic I was, how I had such a great attitude. They wanted to know what my secret was.
I was indeed for the most part a cheerful and smiling presence at the LPJC meetings, but I was not without doubts and fears for the future.
But there are limitations to the usefulness of a positive attitude, and pitfalls you must avoid, and good things about a “bad” attitude.
Let’s start with that last one first.
Though our culture thinks of depression and worry as bad things, there is a reason that those feelings exist! They are the engine temperature gauge on your dashboard; they are there to alert you to the existence of a problem that needs to be addressed. If you constantly have the attitude of “Everything is going to be just fine!”, you are going to miss the danger signs when things are about to go (or have already gone) awry. Your body and brain are finely-tuned instruments designed to detect trouble. You absolutely must feel your genuine feelings if you are to make well-informed choices.
Think I am wrong? As late as the summer of 2008, more than a year after the economic contraction had begun, financial advisors were still talking about the stock market in positive, upbeat terms, saying that the talk of recession was just “negativism”. Two years later, we’re all still painfully aware of how wrong they were. Had they (and others) a more negative attitude a couple of years before, missteps might have been avoided and things might have turned out differently. (I could go through history and give example after example of general belief in how things would always go right blinding people to the facts, but this essay already clocks in at 1600 words.)
One of the pitfalls to avoid is having the wrong kind of optimism.
One of the biggest cultural phenomena this past decade was a book called The Secret.
In it, the author states that the secret to getting what you want is to envision that desired result, visualize yourself getting that result, and then, believing in that result; in essence, wishing really hard.
In my experience, there is no secret, and I think there are some very real dangers to embracing the ideas of The Secret.
Probably the least important from the perspective of a job hunt is the science of the thing. The author of The Secret uses just enough scientific words and concepts to convince those who haven’t actually studied quantum physics, but it is a misapplication of the concepts that the author refers to. Believing in The Secret hurts your understanding of actual science.
More relevant to this discussion is that belief in The Secret hurts you.
So you have lost your job and your financial situation is not in good shape. Implicit in the idea of The Secret, that you can attract the things you desire to yourself just by wishing for it, is the idea that what you have gotten in your life you got because you were wishing for it, or, at the very least, attracting it by thinking about it too much, by worrying about it.
Taken at face value, it is your fault that greedy investment fund managers created incredibly risky and complex financial instruments and caused the global financial meltdown, which in turn put you in your jobless state. Also, it is your fault that oil is spilling in to the Gulf of Mexico at a prodigious rate. Hurricane Katrina was your fault too.
(Arguably, you may have contributed to these by driving a gas-guzzling SUV, or by day trading in the stock market. Well, OK, maybe not Hurricane Katrina, anyway. But your contribution was not wishing for it or worrying about it. But I digress…)
Initially, coming into The Secret feels empowering. “Maybe I did contribute to my current jobless state by worrying about being broke and homeless, by worrying about the economy, but now that I know The Secret, that will never happen to me again!”
And then what happens (based on the factual data of what is going on in the job market) is you still don’t get the job. Maybe you tell yourself, “I’m just not wishing hard enough, I have to wish harder!” But still the success you are looking for eludes you, and you become depressed, because in addition to failing to get a job, you are also failing to wish hard enough and feeling guilty for putting yourself in the position in the first place. It can feel like you can’t be successful at anything!
Because there are limits to what a positive attitude can accomplish.
Having said all that, I still think you should nurture a positive attitude, even (and especially) during the difficult times you face during a job search.
Despite the benefits of a bad attitude, our culture does indeed think of depression and negativity as bad things. In our culture, it is unacceptable to have a “negative attitude.” Nobody likes to spend time with someone who (in a professional setting) is going to complain, who is unhappy, or is worried. You have to have a good attitude, or you won’t get hired. (You might not even get the interview!)
So given that you need to feel depression and anxiety (and anger and despair and on and on), and given sometimes you don’t get a choice in how you feel, how are you going to overcome that to fulfill the societal requirement to be perky and upbeat?
In the words of Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian character on SNL, it’s “Acting!”
And remember, when you are up there on the stage, that the audience isn’t just the person on the other side of the desk in your interview – you need to be in the audience as well! You have to be able to suspend your disbelief, out there in the audience, and buy the performance.
There are other reasons to have a positive attitude. First, and most simply, there is no faster way to not get what you want than believing it is impossible. You stop trying, or you don’t put everything you’ve got into it. (And in the current economy, if you don’t give it all you’ve got, someone else will and you won’t get the job!)
Similarly, the second reason is that being down saps your ability to give it your best. Depression drags you down. Try running a marathon with 300 pound weights attached to your ankles, and see how fast you run.
Third, visualizing your success makes success easier to achieve.
“Now, wait a minute, Jim,” I hear you say. “You just said that this whole Secret thing isn’t real, and now you are saying that thinking positively will get you the things you want. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
No. While the so-called Law of Attraction (the titular “Secret”) is bunk, there is a psychological phenomenon that explains why the law appears to exist.
I was attending a seminar by Dr. Katharine Brooks, and she told a story about a friend who was considering buying a car. I don’t remember the model, but it was something with a fairly distinctive silhouette, like a Smart Car, or maybe a PT Cruiser. Dr. Brooks was unfamiliar with the model, and, after her friend showed her a picture, said she had never seen one on the road. The next day she saw several of that model car on her way to work.
It wasn’t that there was some conspiracy to keep the cars off the road until she was shown a picture. And there wasn’t a convention of Smart Car (or whatever) owners that was just coincidentally happening the day after she saw the picture. And it certainly wasn’t that the cars were mystically attracted by “quantum physics” to her vicinity because she was thinking about them. No, it was that her mind had just not noticed the cars on her drive because she wasn’t looking for them. Quite the opposite of the so-called Law of Attraction, it wasn’t the object of her focus being attracted to her, it was her focus being attracted to the object.
By the same token, by visualizing your success, seeing yourself in that job, you teach your brain to notice the things that will get you to your destination. Where believing you can’t get there robs you of the ability to see the things that you can do to make it happen (because you believe there isn’t anything you can do), believing you can shows you the opportunities to take if you dare to believe.
Of course, there are pitfalls here, too. If you visualize success too narrowly, your visualization will exclude from your sight possible alternate paths to success. Finding balance between keeping all of your options open and closing off your route to success is one of the more difficult challenges in managing your career.
It may not be easy, holding onto the belief you can be successful while being open to the warning messages of the so-called “negative” emotions; visualizing your success without blocking your vision; taking responsibility for your choices and not blaming yourself for things that are truly outside your control. But it is no secret.
(Author’s note: In the credit where it’s due dept., I would like to thank Barbara Ehrenreich for her entertaining and thought-provoking book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentles Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, for inspiring this post. It is a great read and I highly recommend it for more on the subject!)
Jim Adcock is Vice President of Launch Pad Job Club, an organization in Austin, Texas, whose mission is help people who have lost their jobs to get the skills they need to land their next job, and to help them cope with the interim between jobs. Check out other career-related entries.