A couple of years ago, there were too many jobs and not enough talent: We all learned about the talent wars. This year, there aren’t enough jobs and too much talent: We’re all learning about the talent woes. This new environment has all kinds of people facing the hard reality of pink slips and coming to terms with the challenge of a new, dramatically reduced sense of themselves.
Why does the loss of a job also carry with it a loss of self-esteem? Because for many of us, a job represents more than just a paycheck; it’s also a vital part of who we are. So what’s the right response to tougher times? How about reading a book? Not just another book on the color of your parachute or the inner search for the real you. Instead, what about a tell-it-like-it-is book from the trenches of the world of work? What about Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy (Bloomsbury, 2001)?
About a decade ago, at the height of the last recession, author Ben Cheever lost his job as an editor and condenser at Reader’s Digest, as did many other employees. He also happened to be a resident of Westchester — a suburban New York community hit hard by the closing of an enormous IBM plant nearby. In response to his own sudden job loss and to the general unemployment all around him, Cheever decided to write a book about starting over. Where do all the jobless go? What does it take to find a job in a downtrodden economy? And once you locate a job opportunity, how do you actually land the position?
To answer those questions, he spent five years applying for, training for, and — more often than not — getting rejected from dozens of low-wage service jobs in the greater New York metropolitan area. Cheever describes his (un)employment odyssey as “eating dog food in discreet little bites.” But the experience also left him with a wealth of job-hunting (and job-attaining) information that’s more relevant now than when he discovered it. In an interview with Fast Company, Cheever offers advice on starting over in a tough job market when you’re so far down that the only place to go is up.
1. You are not your job title.
It’s a familiar observation that we define ourselves by what we do. Five years ago, that was considered a good thing. Hundred-hour workweeks, sleeping at the office, Foosball tables in the conference room: All of those were signs that your life and your job were inextricably intertwined. But even now, with the economy and its accompanying fervor cooled, it’s difficult to separate your life — and yourself — from your work. “We spend a lot of time at our work. It’s difficult not to invest feelings in something that draws off that much energy,” says Cheever. “Where we go wrong now is to identify too closely with a particular employer.”
With jobs and companies vanishing during these turbulent times, it’s important not to equate yourself with your place of work. Instead, think bigger. “Don’t concentrate on the employer,” he advises. “Concentrate on the industry and on your particular skill. The employer may cut you off at the knees. The job may vanish. The industry probably won’t.”
2. Get past the shame barrier.
“I’ve worked with many people who felt that their state of joblessness was a reflection of their character,” Cheever says. “I think that’s a mistake.” Instead, he advises, acknowledge that it hurts to lose a job. Give yourself a little time to wallow, but realize that in a recession, layoffs happen. Then pick yourself up and move on.
You also have to recognize that your next job may not be your dream job. In fact, it may not have anything to do with what you were doing before. It may even be a step down. But that’s okay. Holding out for an ideal job that could be months or years away isn’t going to help you right now. “It makes sense to just get a job,” says Cheever. “The hard thing is to go out there and admit to yourself that you’re in this kind of position. At the very worst, you’ll do it for a little while. At best, you’ll find something that’s related to what you want to do someday.”
In fact, that’s exactly what Cheever did when he got a job selling books for Borders Books and Music in Manhattan. It was a far cry from his dream career in writing, but it brought in a paycheck, kept him close to the world of books, and taught him quite a bit about the process of selling and marketing them.
3. Keep in touch.
“It’s terribly important to keep your friends,” says Cheever. In fact, your friends may be the quickest route back to steady, satisfying employment — another reason why overcoming the shame barrier is key. If you can’t bring yourself to admit that you need a hand, they’ll never be able to give you one. It’s a commonly accepted maxim that a majority of jobs are gained through friends or other personal connections. Cold-calling for a job is always harder than finding it through a network of people who already have the inside track. For that reason, Cheever says, “it’s vital to make everyone a potential contact. You don’t want to burn bridges.”
What that means is that when you make a connection with someone, maintain it. Don’t be shy about making your interests and needs known to friends and acquaintances. They may not have a job to offer you right now, but chances are that if your friends know what you’re looking for, they’ll give you a call if something turns up, or they’ll pass your name along the moment they hear of something. Cheever answered a lot of anonymous ads in the paper to research his book, but when it came to attaining his dream — getting the book published — an old relationship with a publisher friend made the difference.
4. Pound the pavement.
Don’t have a deep Rolodex full of friends who can help you get a job? In that case, you may discover, as Cheever did, that the most frustrating thing about job hunting isn’t always rejection: It’s silence. “You spend weeks polishing your résumé and worrying about that cover letter,” he says. “I sent dozens out — maybe even a hundred. And it was astonishing to me how infrequently anyone responded.” This is more true today, when résumés are flowing like water and the supply of available jobs has slowed to no more than a trickle. In times like these, you have to put on some sturdy walking shoes and hit the pavement. “Self-selection is an awfully important thing. If you really want a job, pick out the one you want, and go after it,” Cheever advises.
That’s exactly what he did to land a long-coveted job at CompUSA. After unsuccessfully filling out a couple of different applications (with the perfected résumé attached, of course) and making fruitless follow-up phone calls, Cheever finally went to the store to meet some of the employees and find out who the hiring manager was and when he would be in. When the manager returned to the store, the employees remembered Cheever and helped him out. He was able to speak directly to the manager about a job, got an interview on the spot, and landed the position.
Cheever suggests that the process isn’t so different whether the job you’re seeking is behind the service desk or the executive desk. “Know no shame,” he says. “Just show up, find the person who might hire you, and convince him.”
5. Always have a Plan B.
(And a Plan C, for that matter.) If you’re one of the lucky few who have never felt the sting of being laid off — or one of the luckier still who have been laid off but quickly found another job — don’t assume that your job is secure. “You can’t just think, ‘The CEO smiled at me today; it’s going to be all right for the next 15 years,’ ” Cheever cautions. “People of my generation signed an implicit contract — that if we worked hard and had loyalty, we would have a comfortable income for life. That contract is now null and void.”
For that reason, it’s never a good idea to get too comfortable. Think about what your next step might be. Focus on building skills that are transferable to other jobs, other companies, even other industries. (“We’re so highly specialized these days. I was a condenser, for God’s sake! This was a skill that nobody else wanted!”) Skill building is particularly sound advice if you’re holding down a job that earns enough to pay the bills right now but doesn’t satisfy you over the long term. Keeping your eyes and ears open for new opportunities and identifying next steps will keep you focused and moving toward your long-term goals.
“If I had to boil down the past five years of experience into three pieces of advice,” says Cheever, “they would be, Don’t be shy. Don’t be ashamed. Act confident.”
Alison Overholt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company staff writer based in San Francisco. Contact Ben Cheever by email (email@example.com) — but don’t ask about his dad, John. For a collection of career-planning and job-finding tools, click here.