Dante’s Inferno opens within a dark wood. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but this is the landscape of unemployment — no matter the euphemisms of the 21st century ("downsized," "reduction-in-force," "redefinition of core"). Ever since your last day, you’ve been in tall timber, stalking your new raison d’etre. Nothing is familiar, and the target may seem invisible.
It may be time to re-read Eugen Herrigel’s Zen In the Art of Archery. No, your situation isn’t going to make a whole lot more sense after you finish this tome. But at least you’ll be taught how to deal with being and nothingness. Your new situation is fraught with both. Very little in corporate America coached you in creative emptiness. Above all, you will be coached to live in the now, essential for your passage.
If that book doesn’t arm you for this weird journey, you could take Wilderness Survival School. My mentor in this arena was Tom Brown (www.trackerschool.com). Raised in the Pine Barrens by Stalking Wolf, an Apache, Tom now has 17 books to his credit. His early fame derived from helping police to track lost people. Current works even cover urban survival. You’ll be surprised how relevant that training turns out to be. No, I’ve never again needed to throw a tomahawk smack into a tree. But I’m a different woman for knowing that I can. This is the sort of surety that becomes essential on the job search. Knowing matters. And no one and nothing can take it from you.
In the midst of corporate upheaval, you may find that the wisdom of other times, other learning, deeply comforts and sustains. Your new challenge has everything to do with identity. Even though you knew you were not that job, you’re still no longer the person you were B.D. [Before Downsizing]. The ability to live in the moment (as in this very second) may never have been more critical to your well being. Your past has become "history." And at the same time there IS no past. Quite frankly, except in resume workshops, you cannot afford the time nor the energy to dwell on what used to be. Your identity did not reside in that office, nor in that time. Who you really are must infuse every fiber of your being, and this is where ancient wisdom comes into play.
Now, everywhere you go, the implied question is, "Quick, who are you?" The answer had better be on the tip of your tongue, just when it seems most remote.
Everything you do now is geared toward the tomorrow of the new job. But there is only this day, this hour as the clay from which to craft what comes next. What are you going to do to fill this time segment productively? First of all, pretend you’ve been handed a single-lens reflex camera (what you see is what you get); or the finest binoculars. What you do, now, is focus. Not on the job. Rather, on the job of getting a job. And on the person who is seeking the job. Zen masters were right — focus on this moment and forget the target.
Moment-living means becoming that old military motto: SEMPER PARATUS: Live every second fully prepared. Resume printed on handsome paper; a batch always in your car, wherever you roam. Your hair-cut is up-to-the minute; shoes always shined. Your "30-second commercial" at the tip of your tongue (a written description which you have memorized and read aloud to colleagues: "Hello, I am X, a highly experienced Y, who works in the Z field, specializing in A, B and C." ) Your phone and its message machine are in perfect working order, and you listen to your own message to be sure it is lively and welcoming.
The core of the Zen approach is that there is only inner and outer impeccable preparation. Masters use another phrase to teach this approach: "The journey is the destination."
Your bow is your up-to-date computer; fully virus-protected, tended, standing at the ready. Your string is resilience. Your arrows are all your skills and gifts, some used, some never utilized in the job you left behind. As a hunter, you will tend and hone, study, balance and rearrange those arrows. You may require a different array for each job description.
You will not be so fortunate as the native hunter, to whom sundown brought an end to the hunt. Dusk brings the job-seeker only surcease from phone calls. Darkness simply offers a new range of tasks. You might consider changing from tracker to trapper. Evening brings the opportunity to tend to your snares.
If you are fortunate, tough coaches will enhance your quest. There are many area resources, including the Department of Labor’s Re-Employment personnel (wwnjpin.state.nj.us). Nondenominational career building sessions are held at Trinity Church (on Mercer Street) and St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street. Trinity’s JobSeekers (trinityprinceton.org, JobSeeker’s button) was founded in 1982 by Niels Nielsen of Princeton Management Consultants (pmcnielsen.com). Trinity alternates workshops on relevant topics with open discussion every Tuesday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. (George Thomas room of outbuilding on Mercer St. closest to Nassau Street). St. Paul’s schedules its themed meetings on specific Saturday mornings (www.stpaulsprinceton.org). Upcoming meetings are November 15, December 6, and January 17.
The ancients hunted on horseback. In effect, in the 21st century, we all do. Attend to your "steed." Yes, ironically, when money is iffiest, make sure battery and spark plugs, struts and alignment, tire rotations, etc. are monitored and assured. You can’t have that mount of yours unable to carry you when the quarry is sighted at last.
A Native American archer knows his prey almost as well as he knows himself. The skilled hunter spends great swathes of time examining hoof prints. Your prey-study will take place on the Internet, among Annual Reports, in business newspapers and magazines, among friends and colleagues from every segment of your life. You’ll do salary range studies, and take complex tests to reveal strengths and weaknesses. You’ll enroll in tutorials to acquire new skills and sharpen old ones.
Sacrifice ensures the successful hunt. Native Americans went without food and sleep to be cleansed for their quests. Zen students put in hours of attention to arrangements of small stones, flawless brewing of rare tea, concentration on the echo of a temple bell. You will be sacrificing comfort; even appetite; and, all too often, sleep. It helps to see this entire process as part of the ritual of preparation. Know that it is sharpening you for the quest.
Your own rituals may include starting each day perusing the Wall Street Journal; certain evenings with the local want ads; specific hours pulling up monster.com, et al. Some hoops through which you will be expected to jump will seem far-out to impossible. The day that I was broken by official demands was, fortunately, not within an interview, but at my chiropractor’s office. I didn’t expect the new bureaucracy to follow me in there, one of my essential havens.
It might have helped had I seen this requirement as just one more sacrificial ritual. Be forewarned that each company, as well as the New Jersey Department of Labor, and the United States government (which now have to be informed of every one of my chiropractic visits, because I am on some new form of medical insurance pursuant to the firing) has its own set of procedures. Try to see this as though you were following several deer through the dark wood. You’ll soon recognize that each has its own quirks, energy level, preferred foot, age, and preoccupations. Whether with some Human Resources professional or on the track of the deer, it does not do to approach these demands lightly, let alone in a compromised condition. As with the Zen student sitting at the feet of the ancient master, 100 percent engagement is required. Conditioning is key.
Zen practitioners as well as Native Americans follow certain strictures to heighten their prowess. Certain factors are prescribed, — such as what is to be eaten and drunk or avoided; what practices are essential to keep the quester in peak inner and outer condition. Purification is the name of their game, a concept that has gone out of fashion. Nonetheless, it’s essential. Call it fitness, if you will. Regular, vigorous exercise has never been more essential. As with your clothes, you’ve got to convey, — despite the amorphousness of your new role — energy, aliveness, determination, and readiness.
Gyms are good for many reasons. But outdoors may serve you better just now. Sun lends color, even sparkle that does not reside among machines and mirrors. There is the added benefit of fresh air’s clearing the brain cells, making way for brainstorms.
Many an "aha!" — allowing a person to reach an essential task, a new approach — materializes out on the trail. We have one of the finest in the world in the Princeton region — the Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath. It’s straight enough and smooth enough that you can put all your concentration and energy into the trek, not the footing — and you may just zone out. Zen. That sort of experience requires a measure of solitude and silence. Gyms, on the other hand, are ideal for contacts. If in doubt, do both. The Towpath is free.
Other aspects, — which would have been purification rituals in ancient times — include nutrients, attention to total well-being. While you still have them, use those benefits for complete medical and dental check-ups. This is no time to be unexpectedly felled. Eat whole, live food every day — some of that energy infuses you in your quest. Vitamins are more important under these new stresses, not less.
The hunt calls for particular gear. You will require neither loin cloths nor saffron robes. But you must have crisp suits and sprightly blouses/shirts. Not moccasins, but recently polished shoes/purses/briefcases. As the hunter chooses muted tones to avoid drawing attention to himself, so the job-seeker is cautioned never to wear bright colors. Nothing is to impede you in your quest. Everything is to speed your arrows where they need to land. A supreme irony is the Zen truth: To secure a new position, you must look, dress, and act as though you don’t need one.
Even foul weather gear is studied by trained interviewers. So, just when money is tightest, be sure your raincoat looks spiffy. No old or bulging leather accessories — these are your quivers, remember? In this case, you’re not so lucky as the Indian — he didn’t have to worry what deer, bear, or turkey thought of his haircut or the condition of his heels. Prior to the hunt, Native Americans smudged themselves over sacred fire, to mask human scent. Interviewees are instructed not to becloud themselves by perfume or after-shave. As with wild prey, the person you are trying to secure may even circle back on you, dream up an excuse to walk you to your car. How a vehicle is kept says a great deal about the condition of a prospective office.
A curious aspect of the job hunt is the paradox of needing solitude, yet requiring fellowship. You have never been so alone. No one can do this but you, for you. Yet you have never needed others more. Right Management Consultants (RMC), the outplacement firm I have utilized, insists that fully 80 percent of new jobs come through direct human connection. Yes, people who already exist in the job hunter’s life. Not through resumes and not through the Internet.
Having re-employment coaches is the equivalent of sitting at attention before Zen masters, or stalking alongside tribal elders. Absorb everything you can. Then go to every friend, every colleague and use that new knowledge. RMC challenges you to expand your "A-list" — friends, colleagues, former workmates, your doctor, the dental hygienist, your mechanic, lawyer, and her legal assistant. Everybody knows all sorts of people, and some of them have positions that need to be filled with excellence. I.e., you! Those whom your "A-list" know are your "B-list," your leads. You call and ask, — not for a job — , but for information, ideally for in-person info-exchanges. And then you follow every lead assiduously, like the native tracker studying hoof prints). Your purpose throughout is enlightened pursuit.
You won’t exactly be sniffing the air. But your reading and in-person research will reveal trends you will follow the way the hunter scrutinizes weather patterns, seasonal changes, and wind directions. You will discover which business segments are expanding, which contracting, positioning yourself accordingly.
It all comes back to living in the moment. Never before has it so seemed that whatever you’re doing, you should be doing something else. When you’re out ordering and approving those new business cards (with periods to separate the phone numbers, the way they do in Europe, to demonstrate that you are au courant), you’ll be preoccupied with phone calls you need to make. When you’re all set to go to the networking breakfast, that will be the only time for the next interview. While you’re filling out government forms, you’ll be sure you’d be better off restudying information from that tutorial. Completion becomes your new boss, and he’s never satisfied.
No matter what position you used to hold, you will need an executive assistant as every man and woman needs a wife. But the only executive assistant is yourself — whose filing may not have been up to snuff but has never been more critical. And all the while you’re proudly crossing off that to-do list, you’ll be haunted by something you read somewhere: ACTIVITY IS NOT ACCOMPLISHMENT.
Yet be careful that you do not become your to-do list. Especially, do not content yourself with surfing the net, sending out resumes (don’t forget to attach those paragraphs of keywords — part and parcel of electronic job applications). I heard one re-employment coach scold an executive who was proud of all the hours he’d chained himself to the computer: "You need to get OUT there — 80 percent human contacts, remember?"
On the job hunt trail, you’re awash in paradox. When you have the least to do officially, the greatest number of tasks are demanded. You’ll yearn for the luxury of closing the door on the day’s challenges. Unfortunately, they follow you right into the bedroom. Waken with you too many times a night. You’ll find out who your friends are, and you won’t like some these discoveries. Yet, you’ll be surprised by powerful assistance of others, whom you barely know.
You will be experiencing an expansion — almost exponential — of your own limits. Because you are surviving this course, you are the fullest you’ve ever been, when you may feel the emptiest. Yes, all doors seem to have shut. Yet you are quivering on the threshold of multi-faceted opportunity.
Even though there IS no visible target, you maintain your arrows as straight and true. The feathers are skillfully fletched, each arrow sporting feathers from only one wing for true direction. You learn to form and re-form your resume, according to the subject of your quest. Your arrowheads are knapped to a sharpness that scares even you, the creator. Your body and your spirit are held in hunt-readiness, whatever this requires in terms of fellowship, exercise, study and solitude. You keep reminding yourself: there is only now.
And that’s when it happens. At the impromptu dinner you attended as a favor to a friend; at the opening of our new theater; the car wash; the copy place. Someone is telling someone of a personnel need, and you step right up, alert, PARATUS. Eureka! Because you never know, you must always know.
This is part of an occasional series chronicling the travails and adventures of U.S. 1 readers who are changing jobs or careers. Queries or submissions are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org