December 15, 2009

Thinking About Fear and Unemployment

I have to give a presentation tomorrow to people who have been unemployed a year or longer. They’ve asked me to talk about fear, a subject that fascinates me.

I know they’re thinking about the day-to-day fears that hold job seekers back, such as a fear of rejection and a fear of telephoning strangers – tactfully known as “call reluctance” in the sales world.

But even though I know this, I’m inclined to talk instead about what I think is the real issue: Fear of getting on with your life.

It’s not that being unemployed is such a comfy place to be. Except that after a while, it is. If you’re out of work for a few months, you can’t help but fall into a routine that includes getting up on your own schedule and tending to your household chores before you attack your job search. Some days, depending on the circumstances, putting your job search last means putting it off altogether. Pretty soon the experiences of going to work and being pressured to produce and being reviewed by a boss all become a memory rather than a goal. And the prospect of returning to that unknown land creates an anxiety that rivals your financial problems in intensity.

When I get a chance to talk with someone immediately after a job loss, one of my first and most insistent pieces of advice is to pick up a part-time job somewhere, anywhere. I don’t care what the work is, or how much it pays. My real goal is to keep this person in the groove of working, so they don’t forget what it’s like. To keep them indoctrinated if you will. Because the longer someone is away from this lifestyle, the more difficult it will be to return.

So what does that have to do with fear? Just that people tend to avoid the things they fear. It’s only natural. So someone who thinks he wants to return to work, but who secretly fears that prospect, is not going to make as much progress in job search as someone who has nothing holding her back. If we don’t resolve these major fears lurking beneath the surface, all the cold-call training in the world means nothing. When people don’t make their daily outreach goals for job search, I don’t think they’re afraid of being rejected; I think they’re afraid of succeeding.

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