“Conduct your job search as if it is your job” is advice that keeps people unemployed

unemploymentI have no advice on how to find a job. I got my World Bank job through the kind of amazing fluke that is, well…the way that people generally get their jobs. But I do know how to not find a job. After college, I spent something like nine months without employment, and it was not the happiest of times. Whenever I meet or see someone who is in that situation, I just want to hug them and tell them that I understand and that everything will be okay.

But other people have a different reaction. Other people go and give them terrible job-finding advice that drives them down into the mire of agony and despair.

So let me clear this up. If “treat looking for a job as if it is your job” means “work on it for an hour or two and then go off and browse Facebook for the rest of the day,” then yes, that is what you should do.

But if it means “go to your desk and sit down and work at it for eight hours,” then I have to seriously question whether the advice-giver has ever actually tried to find a job. It’s amazing sometimes that we can all have these hard-won experiences in our memory bank, and yet we’re still so willing to overlook our own experience of the world in favor of these nice-sounding platitudes.

Finding a job is a lot like writing fiction: the most important element of the task is managing your own despair. And one of the major cripplers of productivity is overambitious productivity goals. If people think they’re supposed to be looking for a job eight hours a day, then they’re going to be filled with dread and ennui and they’ll put off the task.

Also, on a purely practical level, job-finding just isn’t that time-consuming. There are basically two ways to find a job:


  1. Apply for positions
  2. Leverage your contacts


The second way is an order of magnitude more effective than the first way, but it’s also not something you can spend very much time on. All you can do is send out emails, have cautious rounds of coffee with people who might jobs, and, just generally, let all your acquaintances know that you’re looking for a job. That doesn’t take very long.

The first way is the one that will occupy most of a job-searcher’s time, but it’s very much a numbers game. Especially for people looking for entry-level work, 90% of the applications you send out are going to get either no response or a negative response. That means you literally need to send out hundreds of applications in order to get a job.

But even sending out hundreds of applications doesn’t take eight hours a day. If you send out three a day, you’ll have sent out almost a hundred in a month.

But most people don’t do that. Because they feel like job-finding should be their job, they usually send out ten on day one, then five on day two, then nothing on day three. And then they do nothing for three months. And for that entire three months, they hate themselves, because they feel like there is something they should be doing.

And there is…but what they should be doing is so minor. Job-finding is such an insanely chancy business that the key is to just do something instead of nothing. If you do even thirty minutes of work on it a day, then that’s all you really need in order to put yourself in a position where something good can happen to you.

I will note that there is another side to job-finding: the side where you just need to find some source of money immediately or you won’t be able to pay your mortgage, feed your children, etc. I don’t know anything about that. My solution to running out of money was (and still would be) to move in with my parents. Sorry. I feel like there should be a disclaimer on my blog: “Advice for shiftless youths, about shiftless youth problems.”

9 thoughts on ““Conduct your job search as if it is your job” is advice that keeps people unemployed

  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    I’ve done a few things for money. Software, mostly, but a bit of woodworking, a bit of nonfiction writing, etc.

    What all of these have in common is that they are skills, and they are skills that get better with practice.

    My advice is like yours – the declining marginal returns after the first hour per day of active searching are abysmal.

    I would add to that that practice can both improve skills AND bring you attention. Engage in activities that are related to your core competency and which can bring you attention. If you’re a coder, write an open source package, upload it to Github and blog about it. If you’re an artist, make up new covers for science fiction classics and upload them to deviantart. If you’re a woodturner make a dozen (or a hundred) bowls or peppermills and give them to the local historical reenactment society. If you’re a writer, write and blog the stories.

    Not only will your skills improve, but you’ll be creating a social network and whatever the 21st century version of a “resume” is.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That’s probably good advice. It’s often hard to see how stuff like that can make a difference. It feels too much like faffing around. But I know plenty of people whose sideprojects have turned into something. And you’re right that it at least improves your skills. And, in any case, you need to do _something_ purposeful in order to keep yourself going for those other fifteen hours in the day when you’re not searching for a job.

  2. Sunday

    “Finding a job is a lot like writing fiction: the most important element of the task is managing your own despair.”
    OMG so funny! Thank you for writing this, I needed it, especially today.

  3. AnyaL

    I totally agree with @MorlockP – I would probably modify the traditional “treat getting a job likes it’s your job” to say “find something – preferably career-related – that you want to do and treat THAT as your job”. In my last job search I only applied to a handful of jobs, mostly through connections (which was about a handful of evening’s worth of work) and then spent many entire weekends building a web app. And I believe that having gotten that web development experience was key in landing me my current job.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, it definitely takes awhile to realize that developing your career-related skills is something you have to do on your own time. I feel like this is because when you go to your first job, you’re usually totally unqualified and they just teach you everything you need to do. But after that, it’s up to you to fool people into thinking you’re ready for a better / different job.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, that definitely seems like a complicated and fraught one. I kind of wish I knew _anything_ about job hunting. Someday I’m gonna need to learn all these lessons the hard way.

      1. jamesweber16

        For me, it has mostly been realizing that out in the ‘real world’ things take time . . . a lot of time. It isn’t unusual to stay somewhere, even somewhere that isn’t ideal, for a year or two years before something changes. Just got to wait. That isn’t to say you can’t/shouldn’t jump on opportunities that you find, and that you shouldn’t always be looking. But just gotta remain calm about the timeline.

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