Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Minding the Job Hunt

Mindfulness meditation helps in the job search.

This post asks a pretty simple question: as you go through the job search process, are you looking forward to the reward at the end, or are you focused on your fears?  How you answer this question could have an effect on the quality of your search.

I recently read an interesting book, The Mindful Way Through Depression, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. On page 124, the authors describe an experiment conducted with college students in which the students were given a drawing of a maze with a mouse caught in the center.  Their task was to draw a line to help the mouse find its way out of the maze.  Two different versions of the maze drawing were distributed randomly to the students.  Some students received a maze that pictured the mouse in the center and a piece of Swiss cheese at the exit of the maze.  The other version depicted the same maze with the mouse in the center, but instead of cheese, an owl hovered over the maze, "ready to swoop down and capture the mouse in its talons at any moment."

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Every student was successful in solving the maze in less than two minutes regardless of whether the owl or the cheese were present.  But the aftereffects were the interesting part: when the students later took a test of creativity, the scores of the students who helped the mouse avoid the owl were fifty percent lower than the scores of the students who helped the mouse find the cheese.

Think about that for a moment: the state of mind produced by avoiding the owl (caution, fear, vigilance, etc) had weakened their creativity and significantly reduced their flexibility in handling the subsequent task.

The authors contend that this simple experiment reveals something profound: "The same action has different consequences depending on whether it is done to move toward something we welcome or to avoid something negative."  (p.124)

I was thinking about this story in relation to my clients who struggle with the job search.  That initial burst of enthusiasm for the job search (if they ever had one) is long gone and they now approach every aspect with a "have to" or "should" mentality.  

Most people say they dread writing a resume.  Yet that is one of my favorite ways to interact with my students: by helping them write their resumes we uncover all sorts of experiences and strengths they didn't know they had. They walk out of those sessions with a smile-- even though they have lots of editing work ahead of them, they know the outcome will be great.  The owl is removed and replaced with the cheese. 

So take a moment and think about how you have been approaching the tasks of the job search.

Can you add rewards to the process?  

Try focusing on a tangible goal, such as "I will write 3 sample paragraphs for my cover letter." (Notice the goal is on the end product, not the time spent. Saying that you'll work "for an hour" on something doesn't ensure a concrete outcome.)  Then set up a reward: watch a favorite TV show, enjoy dinner out, go for a run, whatever works for you.

If you can find positive rewards in the process, great.  But what about those fears and other unwanted emotions?  What if you can't shake them? Can you monitor and regulate your emotions?

What Williams et al would recommend is mindfulness meditation.  Instead of pushing away the unwanted emotion (fear, anxiety, frustration) sit with it.  Feel it.  Breathe in. Breathe out. The authors describe this as "tuning in rather than avoiding." 

Sometimes people are afraid that if they feel the emotion it will overwhelm them.  And that is the challenge put forth in this book: can you be with your unwanted emotion without making it worse?

It is a paradox I encourage you to try.  Instead of thinking of these negative thoughts as your enemy to be fought against or pushed away, sit with them.  The paradox is you will ultimately see that you are stronger than your fleeting emotions. You will come out stronger for feeling them, facing them, and naming them.

Want to learn more about mindfulness techniques?  "The Mindful Way Through Depression" is also available in an audio version that includes a mindful meditation practice session. And as you might have guessed by now, it is valuable reading even if you aren't depressed.  And here's a link to some tips on meditation.

Join me on Twitter. Find me on Facebook.  Copyright 2011, Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved.

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Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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