How To Do Life

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Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Landing a Good Job

How to unlock the shackles that restrain your job search.

The thought of looking for a job can cause angst:

“My resume sucks. They’re going to ask what the hell I was doing for two years. What was I doing for two years? And they say I’m supposed to quantify my accomplishments. What accomplishments? I didn’t spearhead initiatives saving the company ten zillion dollars. And what do I write in a cover letter that will make mine stand out. Not that job-seeker BS:  ‘Hi. I’m a performance-oriented professional seeking a dynamic opportunity.’ Gimme a break. And if I get an interview, I’ll get too nervous. I hate selling myself. Why can’t I just get lucky and have some friend get me some great job. I think I’ll go play a video game.”

You don’t need to walk on water. Yes, the job market is competitive but landing a decent job doesn’t require magnificence. Even you can do it. Remember that the unemployment rate is only 6 percent. Even if the real rate is twice that, it means that 88% of people are employed. No reason that someone smart enough to read Psychology Today shouldn’t be one of them. Worst case, you take a launchpad—okay, entry-level—job—You can work your way up from there. Remember, many people with jobs are unreliable, dislikeable, and/or downright dumb. Normal mortals get hired and get promoted. I know. I’ve helped many of them.

The resume. It’s less important than you think. Most jobs are won and lost on your skills and on whether you were referred in. All you need is a serviceable resume that's free of BS language such as “Team player who delights in exceeding customer expectations.” The secret is to put yourself in the employer’s shoes. Write mainly what would impress him or her for your target job. Start with a one-line summary that doesn’t brag but isn’t too general, for example, “Recent liberal arts graduate who enjoys research and writing seeks opportunity with pro-social company or nonprofit.” Then present your education and your work history, the more impressive one first. Fill in gaps in your employment with an honest statement of what wouldn’t unduly worry employers. You might even get away with “Sabbatical: Traveled, repaired a boat, read four books, and wrote a blog. Now refreshed, I’m ready to get to work.”

The cover letter. They do usually get read, even if the employer uses a computerized applicant tracking system. Again, avoid job-seeker jargon. Keep it short. If it’s in response to an ad, this approach  has worked well:

“I’m pleased to see this job listing because I believe I’m a good fit.” Then list a job requirement that’s in the ad and underneath, how you meet it. Do that for the three job requirements you best meet. Then say something like, “Of course, there’s more to me than can be summarized in a chart. People say they enjoy working with me (or some other quality that would likely impress that employer) so I’m hoping  you’ll choose to interview me.  Sincerely.

Collateral.  If you feel you can do a good job of it, include a piece of collateral that differentiates you from the other candidates. For example, for a sales job, offer a list of out-of-the-box potential customers. For a marketing job, present a sample business plan to “give you a window into the way I think.” For any job for which you have little training or experience, include a few-page white paper, for example, “Five Keys to Effective Use of Social Media in Fundraising.”

The interview. All the preparation you probably need is:

  • a one-minute answer ready for “Tell me about yourself?”
  • an answer to the question you’re most afraid they’ll ask, like the aforementioned “Why have you been unemployed so long?”
  • 3 PAR stories: a 30-60 second explanation of a problem you faced, the clever or dogged way you approached it, and the positive result.

Then just be your most pleasant and enthusiastic but not phony self.

Follow-up

After the interview, send a note that does more than says thank-you. Tout a highlight of the interview, for example, “I’m pleased you found interesting that I ….” If you flubbed an answer, “I reflected further on your question about X…” If true, end with “I was impressed that (insert something you learned in the interview) and so I’m more enthusiastic than ever about the position.

Then, if the fates align, you’ll land a good job sooner than later. No muss, no fuss.

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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