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Bobi* is an extremely intelligent, interesting and charming young woman in her mid-twenties. When she graduated from college with a degree in history, she knew that she was going to have some difficulty finding a job. But she had no idea that the only work she would be able to find was as an assistant in a small accounting firm. “I don’t know anything about accounting,” she said. “I don’t even like numbers.”

But she needed an income, and she needed insurance coverage, both of which this job offered her. “All I did was make coffee for my boss and answer the phone. Sometimes I even cleaned the kitchen, I was so bored. And it needed to be cleaned.

Her employer seemed to think she was terrific and told her she was the best assistant he had ever had. But one day he told her sadly that he was going to have to let her go. “It has nothing to do with your performance,”  he said. But his boss wanted him to have an assistant who was interested in the work that the firm did. He needed someone who could take over some of the minor tasks that were currently overloading the staff; and Bobi was very clearly not that person. “I can barely add two and two,” she said.

She was given three months to look for a new job and train her replacement. She was also given three months severance pay. Her boss  made phone calls to colleagues and friends to see if he could help her find something; but the first three months passed quickly with not even a single interview from any of the multiple jobs she had applied for. She thought it might be fun to take a vacation with the severance pay. Three months later, her vacation was a blip on her memory, and no job had materialized. Disheartened, she started collecting unemployment, and expanded the areas of her job search.  Nothing.

Bobi was not only feeling sad, but she was confused and angry. “I thought college at a good school was supposed to prepare me to have a great career,” she said. “Not to get another job making coffee and cleaning kitchens. But the reality is that I can’t even get that kind of a job!”

As I’ve written about in other posts on this blog, as well as in some professional papers, Bobi and her peers have a right to be frustrated. Our society has perpetrated the myth that Bobi was complaining about – get good grades, do well on standardized tests, participate in lots of activities, and you’ll get into a top college, from which you’ll graduate with the world as your oyster!

Many young people have come to understand – from painful first-hand experience – that this is not a fact anymore, if it ever was. Their older friends are struggling with many of the same issues, though. Despite an apparent upturn in the economy, it’s not always easy to find any work at all, let alone work in your chosen profession.

Five concepts can help you move forward, despite the odds.

1. Remember: You are not your job. Nor are you defined by your lack of work. As I’ve written in other posts, we all have many different selves. Even at work, we are often called on to wear multiple hats, to perform a variety of tasks. And we often find ourselves feeling almost like different people as we interact and engage not only with these activities, but also with different colleagues as we do them.

2. Try to find activities that bring out the parts of yourself that make you feel good about yourself. That can be volunteer work (which can, eventually, actually lead to a new job!), or taking a course in an area that really interests you. Neither of these activities is a waste of time. If you don’t have money for a class, be creative. Find an online free course, or audit something at your local community college. Or find a friend who would be willing to teach you to knit in exchange for your helping organize the pictures on her computer.  Not only will these activities make you feel better about yourself, but they will also keep you alert and keep your mind active. Very important in the long haul, when it’s all too easy to let your mind go numb.

3. Talk to people. Every day. And in person, not on the computer. Go for informational interviews, but also go out for coffee with at least three people a week. Go for walks with someone two or three times a week. Make phone calls. Go outside. Challenge yourself to talk to someone new every day.  Contact old friends, old school buddies, even old enemies!! And you don’t have to say anything about looking for a job. Find out what they’re doing. See if they want to get together for lunch or coffee or a walk or a movie. Jobs these days are frequently found not on online listings, but through social networks. The more people you connect to, in person (can’t say that often enough – not on your computer!), the better chance you have that someone will connect you to someone who will, eventually, help you get work.

4. Expand your options. Are you thinking too narrowly about what you are going to do for your next job? As I have described in my new book, Integrative Clinical Social Work Practice (to be published by Springer in March), some of the best training I got for becoming a psychotherapist came not from my training and not from my years working in a psychiatric facility, but from my work with stranded travelers at an agency called The Traveler’s Aid Society. I also worked as a clerk at a clothing store, a full time nanny, and an assistant at a pre-school. And for a brief time, I did billing for a large hospital – something I was incredibly bad at, but that has been incredibly helpful in my years as a therapist!

5. And finally – the most important thing – is to remember that you can learn from any job. If you want to be a psychotherapist, you can learn about people washing dishes! If you want to be an accountant, you can learn about how books are kept at any store where you work as a clerk. If you don’t really know what you want to be, a job can help you eliminate possibilities and can expand your horizons – even a job that seems to be beneath your skill level.

A mantra I taught to me many years ago by a jazz dance teacher is equally applicable to job-hunting: Keep moving. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. And don’t be a snob.

With that mantra, you’ll also keep learning. And eventually, you’ll most likely find a job that leads to something else…and something else…and something else.

As for Bobi – in one of her phone calls she caught up with a friend from college who was interning on a politician’s re-election campaign. She gave Bobi the name of the head of interns, and Bobi, a history major who had never thought about politics, was given an internship as well. Someone she met at that internship noticed that she was good at helping people figure out complicated messages and suggested that she see if she could get some work at a facility that helped high school students prep for the SAT’s. Nearly a year later, she was hired by the SAT prep organization. Her work there showed a side of her that she had always known about, but never thought important. She had a real talent for managing difficult teens. With that realization, she began to research the idea of being a school guidance counselor. Which led her to go back to graduate school part time. She is currently working on a degree in social work and working part time in a program for high school teens with problems. And loving it.

*names and identifying information changed to protect everyone's privacy

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