26. Confronting Your Reality is Vital to Your Job Search Success

There’s one timeline and one reality.

When former U.S. vice-presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war James Stockdale was asked who struggled the most in the Hỏa Lò Prison (aka. “Hanoi Hilton”), he answered, “the optimists.”

Stockdale said, somewhat paradoxically, that as POWs, it was the optimists who got crushed. The ones who deceived themselves with unreasonable expectations, who tried to avoid the brutal facts of their reality; “they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale said what you need when circumstances are darkest is a blend of appreciation for what is in your control and an acceptance of what is not. This was the key to his survival.

I can’t think of any greater yin and yang than optimism versus reality.

The situation you’re in right now isn’t your fault. You didn’t cause the pandemic, your job loss, the hyper-competitive job market, nor how long the pandemic has been dragging on. You didn’t ask for this miserable period. 

The ability to acknowledge (Better yet, embrace.) your current reality, the situation, and the environment you currently find yourself in and balance it with optimism will serve you well throughout your job search. Such paradoxical thinking has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders making it through hardship and reaching their goals.

We all know too much of anything is bad. Too much optimism can be mentally crippling, especially finger-crossing, on your knees praying optimism that fixates on conditional hopes and wishful thinking about things outside your control. (e.g., how an employer chooses to hire)

While optimism is good; otherwise, why would you move forward, excessive optimism can cause you to:

  • not acknowledge and accept what you can’t change.
  • soothe your ego and fears with wishful thinking.
  • view the world through rose-coloured glasses.
  • envy those you deem more successful than you, who you think has it easier than you, or tell yourself “They’re privileged.”
  • play the “I’m a victim” game.

Conducting an efficient job search requires knowing yourself and clearly seeing the employment landscape for what it is. (What you’re up against.) When it comes to job hunting, the best approach is to accept that employers own their hiring process, not you. Wishful thinking, created by optimism and a sense of entitlement has no place in a job search.

You may wish employers would simply “get you” and see what a great employee you’d be. The reality is you need to sell yourself and not expect hiring managers to connect the dots between your skills and experience and the job they’re trying to fill. You may wish employers would look past their biases. All human beings, you, and I, carry biases which significantly influence our decisions. Hiring managers are human beings.

Your “wish how employers were” list is probably long—it’s also distorting your mindset and making you frustrated and unhappy. It doesn’t change how employers hire.

Then there’s your competition. Don’t kid yourself; job hunting is a competitive activity. 

Most job search heartbreaks result from job seekers overestimating their abilities—we’re never as good as we think we are—and underestimating their competition. The reality is many rockstar candidates are vying for the same jobs you are.

Here’s one “life rub” we’ve all experienced; competing with someone who’s so good at what they do that it seems unfair. Regardless of how your resume and LinkedIn read, I guarantee you are up against job seekers who are hungrier, more skilled, charismatic, and talented than you.

There’s nothing more painful during a job search than to fall in love with a position, believe that it’s yours and then not get hired. This is where pessimism has its perks. Assuming that you won’t get the job might not make you feel good—that is, until you don’t get the job. If you assumed all along that you wouldn’t get picked for the position (and then you don’t), it’ll still sting, but not as much as if you had believed you were a shoo-in for the job all along.

Weird as this may sound, pessimism manages your expectations and, therefore, can improve your mood and confidence.

Ultimately, the goal is to be neither overly optimistic nor entirely pessimistic. When conducting a job search, keep in mind all you can control is consistently doing your best and graciously accept rejection. This is how you build resilience, which in today’s job market is a must-have. Resilience is why Stockdale was able to survive seven-and-a-half years in the Hanoi Hilton.