Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Intensity of Focus... not activity

Sometimes I am not so clear. Okay. Often I am not so clear, but I occasionally I realize it and am able to redact my comments into a more comprehensible offering. Today is one of those days. A few days ago I offered the suggestion that rejections in a job hunt are depressing and they tend to make us slow down our process. (March 8th, "Perhaps you have noticed the economy spinning out of control") Comments from a couple of people have made it clear that I did not make it clear. So, here is the clarified version with a few additional insights.

Frequency, Intensity, Duration.
When my work life consistently mostly of doing psychotherapy and supervising psychotherapists, I realized that most people came to counseling because the solutions that historically worked for them had begun to be less trustworthy. Likewise before they appeared for counseling, they had typically adjusted the solution by application of the Frequency-Intensity-Duration Triad. I am sure you know this gambit. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it often enough... So, I obviously need to increase the Frequency with which I do it. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it hard enough... So, obviously I need to increase the Intensity with which I do it. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it long enough... So, obviously I need to increase the Duration with which I do it. It really is a basic human flaw that we seldom sit back and accept that the solution doesn't work because it is the wrong solution.

Don't bother me, I'm busy applying for jobs.
I was reading a few of my favorite blogs the other day and I ran across a post by Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business Blog Site. I've always like what Bregman says, but was struck by the title of the post: Need to find a Job? Stop Looking so Hard. I encourage you to read his post because I am about to give a very condensed and far too trite a version of it. In essence, what he says is that when we devote very intense energy to our job hunt (and I suppose career development) we create an environment in which we are more likely to miss those "out of the blue" job offers. Think about it. The more time and energy you devote to a job search, less time and energy you will have to prioritize what you really want out of life.

I worked with a PhD student last year who had sent out hundreds of CV's and cover letters. The student told me that she would spend 18 - 20 hours each week researching and following up on positions.
"So," I asked, "how much time is left over for teaching and completing the dissertation?"
"None of that will make any difference if I don't have a job,"
she said with grim determination and added, "I've sent letters to every state except Hawai'i and every kind of campus"
"Gee, that's a lot of work. Have you ever visited any of the campuses?"
"It doesn't really matter, you know. A college is a college."
Ultimately, when the first offer finally trickled in, it was in a very small school in a remote area of the Midwest, that did not even have a department in her major. The student looked at me and sighed, saying that the salary was so marginal, that it barely boosted the teaching assistant pay she was now receiving. Worse was the realization that a colleague had heard about, applied for, and secured a postdoctoral position at a nearby college and he would not have to move in order to take the position. When I asked if she had applied for the fellowship she said,
"You're kidding, right? I was way too busy trying to get a real job and never saw the announcement."
This student had absolutely no priority targets. Harvard and Klamath Community College were all the same in her book and she devoted the same amount of energy to applying for each. She had made the fundamental F-I-D Triad error, mistaking energy output for discipline.

Priority Targets.
Let me start by saying that it is very easy critiquing others' job searching techniques from the position of having a relatively secure job that you like. I don't envy the daily angst that is part and parcel of the hunt. Having said that, one should think in terms of having priorities that help apportion the energy outlay. Following are a few ideas that can be starting points.

Time frame. Bregman is right about one thing. "At most spend 1-2 hours a day." I have watched one job aspirant after another burn out long before the job announcements do. I will add to what he has said by offering that it is not only important to limit your activity to a couple of hours, but to do it at a time of day that makes sense. During my last "real" job search a decade ago, I realized that I while I worked better late at night, if I had questions about a recruitment, offices were oddly closed at 11:00pm. Shifting the bulk of my searching to early afternoon meant I could ask questions... which is the second idea.

Ask Questions. About twice a week, I will have a student who wants me to review a cover letter or resume or some other "supporting documentation" for an application. As I get into the meat of the request, I will ask, "So, what are they looking for?" Almost universally students answer either "I don't know," or they will hand me a hard copy of an online announcement. When I suggest that they actually personally call to find out, they respond, "Can I do that?" Here's the deal. With much of the job posting and announcement process having migrated to the Internet, it is increasingly difficult to find the appropriate person to talk to about the position. Difficult, but not impossible. When you have a question or are unsure about a job announcement, spend five or ten minutes locating a sentient human being rather than twenty minutes fretting about all of the possibilities.
Stereotypical quick story. Two years ago, a student told me that he had seen the perfect job in a lab in another state, but applications had closed two days earlier. I suggested that he call, which he decided was far too much effort. Two months later, he ran into the researcher at a scientific conference and shared that he had considered applying for the position but that it had closed the week before he saw it. The researcher said, "Wow. That's too bad. We had a devil of a time filling the slot and kept applications open until a couple of weeks ago. We finally hired somebody last week." Call. Ask questions.
Look under the cushions. Our fancy DVR has a big remote... a VERY big remote. One that is far too big to get stuck in the cushions of the sofa, but inevitably when I am freaking out because I cannot find it, my wife will say, "Have you looked under the cushions?" Which, of course, is where it always resides. Do not rely on the Internet as your sole purveyor of jobs. Jobs and promotions often hide in the most curious of places, so if you are continually where you are "supposed" to be looking and never looking under the cushions, you'll miss the good stuff.

Cleverosity rules. John Krumboltz is simply one of my favorite "career guys." I wrote a little bit about his "Happenstance Theory" a couple of weeks ago (Feb 28th, Not only are your friends wrong... I'm wrong, too.) His basic precept is that we sort of stumble into our successes and while he does not say this, I think our failures result from uber-planning... like sending out 121 applications each week for jobs we don't really want.

Here's the deal. If good things happen when we least expect it, the clever person will cultivate moments when he or she is more open to follow through with an "Ah hah! Moment." You can increase your cleverosity quotient by being available to listen, instead of being buried in the process of redesigning resumes or crafting perfect cover letters. I said Peter Bregman was right about one thing... well, he is actually right about many things another is...
Don't waste this time. The job search. The client search. Do it. But do it in a way that excites you. That teaches you new things. That introduces you to new people who see you at your natural, most excited, most powerful best. Use and develop your strengths. The things at which you excel. The things you love.


  1. I love this. Sometimes I feel like if I'm not sending out letters and ressies, I'm not doing enough. This blog really helps to calm my overbusy brain down.

  2. I like what you have to say about job searching, especially as it reinforces for me that it's not silly to only apply for jobs that I actually want and could actually see myself doing, despite still being unemployed nearly a year after receiving my PhD. But I do find it a bit frustrating to hear things like, don't look where you're "supposed" to look, because I don't know where the other places are or how to look there.

    Also, what about all those job listings that exhort applicants, in all caps, not to call please? Should one call anyway?