10 Ways to Survive a Pandemic Job Search
By a Team GB Athlete
This has been a difficult year for the world. With over a million dead globally I am aware of the irony of writing about my own COVID-19 “difficulties.” I am alive and healthy. I am one of the lucky ones. Nevertheless, 2020 has been difficult. The purpose of this article is to help others like me who find themselves looking for work in the worst job market since the Great Depression. Recently, after several months searching, I was lucky enough to land a job. Despite this personal win, I know that many of my peers — all highly qualified — have not been so lucky yet.
Prior to 2020, I had the good fortune of representing my country in the sport of fencing for many years. My sport has taken me around the world and taught me many valuable lessons. Before the pandemic, ranked second in the country, I was on a quest for Olympic qualification. In March, when competitions ground to a halt, I found myself applying lessons from my sport in a new context: the job search. I hope these tips can help you wherever you are in your job search. Here are 10 mental approaches that helped me find a job during the pandemic:
- Be resilient
“If it were easy, everyone would do it” — A League of Their Own
Many times in my fencing career I have trained diligently, done all the ‘right’ things, only to lose a close match. At first, I would agonize over it: “Why? Why did this happen? I worked hard for this. This isn’t fair.” What I realized is: sometimes, life isn’t fair, and that’s ok. It’s important to recognize that luck plays a role.
This process will, at times, feel soul-destroying. That is the nature of searching for a job in 2020. Sometimes you will feel utterly hopeless. If I had a coin for every email I opened that read, “We regret to inform you …” or every time someone on the other end of a phone told me, “We’re not hiring till 2021,” I would be much closer to paying off my student loans. It’s important in these moments to remind yourself that it’s not you. As the saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Whenever possible, try to be objective about this process. Remind yourself how many factors outside your control are causing what you’re experiencing.
2. Be persistent, up to a point
“I get knocked down, but I get up again” — Chumbawamba
At my first ever Under-20 World Cup I didn’t make it past the first round. I was ‘cut’ after losing all my matches. I felt lousy and cried on the plane home. When I got back to training I channeled all that frustration into psyching myself up for the next competition. At the next World Cup, I won a silver medal.
It is hard to get back into the boxing ring after experiencing a beating but it’s essential. The job search will test your persistence every day. Every time you open up your laptop and send another LinkedIn request you are getting back into the ring. It’s important not to let the unpleasantness of this process defeat you. That said, if you feel your eyes starting to glaze over with tears as you scroll through job listings, perhaps you need a break. Perhaps you need to have a good cry. As the expression goes, “it’s ok not to be ok” and you will be more productive if you give yourself the time you need to get your head back in the game.
3. Be creative
“Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results” — Albert Einstein
It was 2011 and I was ahead in the final of an Under-17 World Cup. I was winning 14 –11. Then I made the same mistake four times in a row. I kept trying to hit my opponent in the same way. My coach was yelling, “CHANGE! CHANGE!” but I didn’t listen. I lost the match 15–14. I had gotten stuck in a rut. Looking back, I had needed to change my strategy to win the match.
Persistence is important but there’s a difference between persistence and stupidity. If you feel you’re getting nowhere don’t keep stubbornly repeating the same process. It might be time for a new approach. Re-evaluate. You can’t win using old tricks. Have you been applying to generic job listings on LinkedIn? Are you applying directly on the Website of a blue chip company? If you’ve tried these tactics before and got nowhere, why are you still using them? It’s time to change things up. Creativity in the job search can come in many forms. For me, it meant digging into my contacts to see who I knew. It meant searching through my contacts rather than scrolling through job boards. Sure, maybe you want to work at corporation ABC, but do you know anyone there? Will your application get looked at? It’s time to get creative.
4. Believe in yourself. Trust that you have what it takes
“If you don’t believe in yourself no one will do it for you” — Kobe Bryant
One year, I performed badly in the first three competitions of the season. The owner of my fencing club took me aside. “I know that you’re capable of much more, but, you need to believe that yourself” he told me. He was right. I had started to question myself after several poor results and was suffering from self-doubt. In these situations you are allowing yourself to lose because you don’t believe you can succeed. I learned to catch myself when falling into this mentality and got myself out of this pattern of negative self-talk.
There will be moments in this job search where you question yourself and what you have to offer. When you get so many rejections in a row, like I did, it is natural to start to question yourself. You will feel useless at times and wonder whether any of your education, qualifications and experience up till this point were worthwhile. “Maybe it’s not meant to be,” you’ll tell yourself ,“maybe I’m just not good enough.” Catch yourself when you start going down this road and remember that in order to sell yourself effectively you have to believe in yourself. If you don’t, you’re losing before you’ve even started.
5. Think about what makes you different. What you see as weaknesses might be your strengths
“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength” — Maya Angelou
Growing up, I had big leg muscles. I didn’t like the way they looked, but, they made me fast. I knew that and adapted my fencing accordingly. I built an attack with acceleration and fast footwork. Similarly, I knew fencers that felt awkward about their height: girls that were ‘too tall’ in social contexts. In matches, that was their asset. They were able to keep the distance long, picking off opponents with stop-cuts. I knew left-handed fencers that were made to feel different, relegated to the other side of the room during drills. Yet, they had an advantage in competition, catching people off-guard and parrying more effectively.
Look at your CV. Odds are, you’ve probably looked at it about 100 times so far in this process. That might mean you’ve lost sight of how it looks to someone with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, what would someone looking at your CV notice? What stands out? Do you speak another language fluently? Do you have specific experience or skills that others may not (financial modeling, marketing expertise etc.)? Have you worked in another country? Any of these skills or experiences could give you an edge. Think about what makes you different and lean into those aspects of your background. Sometimes what you think of as a weakness could end up being a strength. Is there a part of your CV that seems ‘random’ that ‘doesn’t make sense’ with your narrative? Maybe that is actually your comparative advantage. I had previously worked in journalism and thought that made my CV ‘confusing.’ In the end, I got a job thanks to that experience.
6. Focus on the process, not the goal
“The root of suffering is attachment” — The Buddha
In 2018 I set myself the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. That 2018–19 season was the worst season of my life. Every competition that I got to I had the goal on my mind. During matches, I was thinking about the need to amass qualification points rather than about my fencing. By contrast, when I think back on my best results, I was never thinking about the outcome. When I qualified for the NCAA finals I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t been tracking my progress. I had been entirely focused on the process. Ending the day on the podium was a pleasant bonus.
If you focus too much on your goal you will feel weighed down by immense pressure. If you wake up every day thinking ‘I NEED TO GET A JOB’ you will self-destruct. When you scroll through LinkedIn you will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. When you eventually get an interview you might blow it if you inflate its important too much. Of course, you need to get a job, but you already know that. Telling yourself that day-in day-out is not helpful. Instead, try to detach yourself from that goal. In the end, I overcame this by thinking of the job search as a game that I was playing. Every application I submitted was like a ‘rep’ in the gym and every interview was a hoop to jump through. By convincing myself that I was like an athlete performing a routine I was able to stay in the present. Eventually, as if by accident, that process led me to my goal.
7. Stay in the present
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” — Lao Tzu
Once, at a competition, I made the mistake of living in the past. I was angrily looking at the qualification draw. “That is so unfair, if I had won one more point I wouldn’t have had to fence in this round!” I thought. I had narrowly missed direct qualification for the second day of competition. I was so fixated on my frustration about that that I lost my next match, failing to qualify the next day.
Often, when things aren’t going well we start to think in counterfactuals. I found myself sometimes thinking “If I hadn’t quit my job and done an MBA I wouldn’t be in this position” or “If I had studied Computer Science at Undergrad I wouldn’t have this much trouble finding a job.” These thought patterns are like self-sabotage and don’t help at all. I only had breakthroughs when I was able to put those thoughts aside, accept my situation, and focus on the task at hand.
8. Keep things in perspective
“This too shall pass” — Persian saying
When I was at University my friend’s father gave me some useful advice. I had just lost a tight match at the Ivy Championships. Seeing the mixture of guilt and grief on my face, he walked up to me and said, “Are you still alive? Yes. Did anyone die? No. Do your friends and family think anything less of you? No.” I smiled and hugged him through my tears. It was an important reality check.
During your job search, it’s important to avoid equating results with your own self-worth. If you fail in an interview process that doesn’t make you a failure. If you’re not getting called for interviews it’s because there are more-qualified candidates. There is nothing wrong with you in the grand scheme of things. Chances are, if you’ve been searching for a few months, you are very used to rejection at this point. Rejection hurts sometimes. The further you get in a process the more invested you may become in a role. You may have started thinking about what it would be like to get the job (see #7). You are allowed to be frustrated, sad, annoyed. But, eventually, shake it off. Don’t let it ruin your happiness. You have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes at a company. Often, positions are given to internal candidates. Your life is bigger than any one application process.
9. Listen to yourself, not too much to others
“I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do!” — Theodore Roosevelt
When I was trying to decide whether or not to try qualifying for the Olympics I consulted lots of people: family, friends, coaches, colleagues. Everyone had their own opinion about what I should do and how I should do it. Some people told me to focus on my career, that my odds were slim. Others told me to chase the dream, that I was in a unique position. What I realized in the end was that only I could make this decision. I knew I was the only one who would live with the regret of not pursuing something important to me. In the end, I made the less rational decision and went for it.
Only you know what feels right for you. You can talk yourself into many different career paths based on earning potential, odds of success, barriers to entry, exit opportunities etc. Realistically, your job search will be a combination of all of these factors but, eventually, you will make your decision based on your own feelings. Family is not always helpful in this situation. They often have their own ideas about what you should do. Often, parents favour risk-averse options. I found talking to people that were more removed from me helpful. Ideal people to talk to are those that know you well but have nothing personal invested in your success: former colleagues, friends of friends etc. Listen to them but, above all, listen to yourself!
10. Focus on yourself, not on others
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” — Eleanor Roosevelt
When I first starting competing, there was one girl that I had a rivalry with. One year, she had a particularly good result at a World Cup and shot ahead of me in the rankings. “That is so unfair, I’m better than her! She got so lucky!” I whined internally. I spent the rest of that season comparing myself with her. Eventually, I realized that I was chasing that girl instead of my goals. Understanding that my own performance was the only thing in my control freed me up to start doing better. Later, she and I were on the GB team together for years. I stopped caring about her results and I started doing better. I even cheered her on.
Comparing yourself to others is a losing game in any area of life. Unfortunately, LinkedIn is not helpful in this regard. LinkedIn only shows us others’ successes. When you’re feeling low it can be difficult to see that. We scroll through our feed and are bombarded with tangible achievements: “Congratulate Mike on starting a new position: Account Manager at BetterthanYou Inc.” What you don’t see is what goes on behind the scenes. Odds are, Mike had a long and arduous job search, just like you. LinkedIn gives the illusion of effortlessness to these outcomes. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself sinking into negative thought patterns: “Why is Mike getting that job and not me? I’m way more qualified than him!” These feelings are normal and are part of living with social media. Combat them by limiting your time spent on the newsfeed. That’s not the part of LinkedIn where you should be spending your time. Remind yourself, whenever possible, that this is your journey and that it has nothing to do with anyone else’s. Happiness is not a finite pie where Mike got the bigger slice. You will get your share too.
I spent most of this post talking about mindset. No matter how strategic you are, or how effectively you use LinkedIn, the job search is a grueling and monotonous process. There aren’t that many ways to truly reinvent the wheel. As a result, the thing that will separate you from the competition is your attitude. One of the things I learned when being an elite athlete is that, at the highest level, most people are equally qualified. The only thing that separates the winners from the losers is their mentality. The best part is, that’s something you can control.
Good luck! You can do this.