I’ve had very rough job search times – once I looked for 2 years. Looking back, it seems that the jobs appear just in the nick of time, just when I need them. I have given in to despair and panic and bitterness – but only for a little while, because what real choice do I have but to keep looking? I surrendered to the search process as being a slog through mud or finding my way on a fog-cloaked path – one step at a time with no view of the final destination. Yet I knew there would be a final destination – as long as I continued on the path, step by step.
I believe in the “leave no stone unturned” school of job search, having launched my first job search when I was just out of graduate school in 1981. That was the last great recession, with job losses and unemployment much higher than we have now. My mother kept bugging me to get a job, and didn’t seem to understand that there weren’t any to be had. So to keep her off my back, I just kept looking and looking and looking. I took all sorts of temp jobs – back then, they did exist, and I was very young and inexperienced.
Gradually and after some weird temp jobs, I got it into my thick skull that I needed to take my father up on his offer to connect me with his colleagues. I had hoped not to need my father – that was my “I can do it myself!” kneejerk just-out-of-school response to his help. However, I learned that accepting his help did not make me less able. I was still the one who had to meet with people, I was the one who had to sell myself to others, I was the one who had to do the impeccable followup. If he was willing to recommend me to someone, I realized that he believed in me. He would not risk his reputation on me otherwise. Thus began my first networking experience.
Through that process, I learned that I needed to say “yes” to absolutely every person whose name was suggested and who was willing to meet with me. Initially, I felt obligated to say “yes” so as not to offend folks or embarrass my father. Eventually, I saw that I had no idea where the road of referrals would take me. Every day was like taking off onto a path completely covered by fog; I could see only one step in front of me and had to trust that I’d see the cliff edge in time to stop and take another turn. Each day was terrifying. But I took action despite the fear. That’s not to say that I didn’t despair and cry and worry – I did. But I had no choice except to carry on, regardless of my feelings.
As I said earlier, it probably would not look anything like what I thought it would look like – and in fact, it did not. I spent about four months networking, meeting with this one and that one, who passed me on to another person, who passed me onto someone else, etc. Eventually, I met Sanky Perlowin who knew of a small non-profit that had just received a grant to start a direct mail program and needed someone to staff it part-time. I applied and after going through the interviews, got the job. It was for 3 days a week in the heart of the then-devastated and dismal South Bronx, paying just $10,000 a year. This was in 1981. The job came just in the nick of time, when my last temp job had dried up and I had nowhere else to look. Of course, during the interview process I kept networking. I kept turning those stones over until I had the job sewn up. In the process, I learned to trust that by taking the actions, I would get to a positive result.
My job search really never stopped after that, because I was constantly updating my resume and going on informational interviews, applying for interesting jobs. That’s probably why I do this now – I’ve been working at job search for almost 30 years!
When I worked for the City of New York, I wanted to leave after two years. The work was fantastic as was the ability to affect people’s lives positively. But the culture was horrible – back-stabbing was the least of it. I learned that I didn’t play well in highly competitive situations. Again, there were lots of tears and lamentation, as I applied for job after job and didn’t get interviews, didn’t get called back, didn’t get offers. For two years, I looked. It was the most demoralizing period of my life – worse even than the first job search!
Hindsight being 20/20, I see clearly that I was not meant to leave just yet. There were lessons for me to learn, including one of the most important of my life – that what matters is the quality of my relationships with other people, not getting things done. Apparently, I had to become a different person in order to move on to a new kind of work.
Again, I had to surrender to the step-by-step job search process. I kept networking, applying, interviewing, looking in the newspaper, writing cover letters, updating my resume, complaining, crying, applying…on and on. Once again, I became willing again to “leave no stone unturned.” I told everyone that I was looking, asked for informational interviews, handed out my resume to anyone who would take it, and stopped caring if my boss knew I was looking.
Then in the summer of 1993, it was becoming clear that Mayor Dinkins would probably lose the Mayoral election. As an appointee, I would definitely be out of a job. Yikes! I became frantic for a while. But that feeling didn’t serve me, and after a major outburst and crying jag, I had to put worry aside and concentrate instead on the steps I was taking. One step at a time. I recontacted everyone I knew or had ever met to say I was looking for a job, preferably as an Executive Director of a non-profit organization. Very few people responded to me. One who did, however, told me about the position at City Harvest. The minute I heard about it, I wanted the job. It was perfect for me!
First, however, I had to get past the recruiter, who was very tough in our initial phone conversation. I persuaded her that I had what it takes, and she put me forward as a candidate in October 1993. I blew the interview with the Board committee because I was so afraid and put so much onto the interview. The recruiter told me that I was her candidate and to sit tight. I sat tight, and didn’t hear anything from November to December, except an occasional “sit tight.”
I continued to apply for jobs, getting more and more nervous as Dinkins lost the election, the new Commissioner was named, and it was clear that she would fire all Dinkins appointees. Finally, in January 1994, I was tired of waiting around for this job that I really, really, really wanted. I thought it would help my search to close off this one loose end. But when I called to tell the recruiter just to take my name out of the running, she wasn’t in. I decided it would be rude to leave a message.
That, it turns out, was a very good decision, for on Monday the recruiter called me to say that City Harvest’s Board of Directors wanted to see me again. I was shocked and delighted. When I saw the Board committee the second time, I walked in knowing that they needed to hire someone and why shouldn’t it be me? I realized that they wanted to like me, so I didn’t have to be nervous, just myself. Also, I asked my Higher Power to come with me. If I was meant to get the job – which I REALLY wanted – I would. I aced that interview and then went to meet with the staff. That went extremely well, as I asked them what they were looking for in a leader. Apparently, no one else bothered to ask them that. And I had a final interview with the Board Committee to go over a few loose ends. Then the Board Chair called me to offer me the job. I started on February 28, 1994, about a month after I had wanted to just end the waiting by taking myself out of the search.
Later I learned that the Board had offered the job to another person who had turned them down. The recruiter urged them to see me again, even though they thought I was too young. The City Harvest job was perfect for me, and I was there for 11 years building it from practically bankrupt into a multi-million dollar organization with national stature.
Obviously, I was not meant to leave my City job until I got the City Harvest job. Looking back, I see that I needed to learn some lessons. Too bad I couldn’t see them while I was in the process. The lessons were many: Keep going. Surrender to the process. Have faith. Eventually there will be the right position. What choice is there, anyway? Until you hear a “no,” you’re still in the running. Just because you can’t stand the wait doesn’t mean it isn’t worth waiting. Waiting may be your only choice for some things. Vent as long as you need to and then get back to work. Worry doesn’t appease the gods, it just makes you more worried. Being committed to yourself and your intentions and goals is the antidote to worry.
I read today that having a mentor means allowing someone else’s hindsight to become your foresight. I hope that my experience of just taking one step at a time and not giving up can serve to give you some perspective.