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How to stay positive during a long job search

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

One of the most difficult aspects of almost any job search is dealing with the frustration of being unsuccessful. You build what seems to be a good resume, send out applications to posted positions or try approaching employers directly, you attend a few interviews that don't result in an offer, you try to build relationships with recruiters, and yet, you're still searching.

You work your network and get no helpful information. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain your self-esteem, your feeling of self-confidence, and your sense of self-worth. You may reach the point where you want to pack it in. Are you going to retire, inherit a pile of money, or win a lottery sometime soon? Unless you are certain that one of these is going to happen, it would seem that you don't have a choice. Like it or not, you're going to have to carry on, but what can you do to avoid the loss of these extremely important aspects of your personality?

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A man I'll call "Larry" had had a good career with one company for more than 30 years and had never worked anywhere else. He had risen to a managerial level and was making a good income. Then a foreign competitor unexpectedly acquired his employer. As is common, the new owners decided to reduce the size of the company and move many of the functions to its headquarters. Larry, along with many other long-term employees, was let go. I met him when he had been unemployed for about 18 months. In his 50s, and without a formal post-secondary education, he found himself at a major disadvantage in the job market. His search was long and depressing. The lack of responses of any kind, especially invitations to interviews, was taking a toll on him. In one of our meetings, I asked him what his main hobby was. What type of activity gave him pleasure and made him feel glad to be alive? His answer was "mountain biking", the serious, hardcore kind through forests and over rough trails. He had been doing it for many years and owned a first-rate bike. I asked him when the last time he had been out on it was, and his answer was that he hadn't ridden it for more than a year. He felt that it wouldn't be right to go riding when he should be spending his time looking for a new position. So, instead of doing something once in a while which gave him some satisfaction and enjoyment, he was spending his days in front of his computer, constantly checking for opportunities and firing off applications.

Larry had received a package that gave him 30 months of full salary and benefits, his wife was working, they had few expenses, and he would have EI coverage after the severance payments were done, so money was not his biggest problem. I told him that he needed to get out on his bike at least once per week and give himself a reason to feel good about himself. It took some convincing, but he did, and his mood improved almost immediately. Eventually he found a position with a new employer and got his career going again. Going out for a ride on his bike once or twice each week did absolutely nothing to shorten the time of his search for employment, but it made a big difference in his attitude while he was going through a most difficult time.

We all need to try to maintain good feelings about ourselves, especially when things just don't seem to be going our way. Whether you enjoy mental or physical activities, you shouldn't abandon them just because you aren't employed. If money is a barrier, find alternatives that are free or relatively inexpensive. If, for example, you can't keep up the gym membership or club fees, see if you can do the same things at the YMCA, YWCA or local community centre. If you enjoy doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, go for a walk and pick up some of the free newspapers that offer them. If it's a nice day, perhaps a walk through a park or along a nature trail will pick you up your mood a bit. If you're a dog or cat lover, can you put in a few hours every week at an animal shelter as a volunteer? Is there a local food bank or other charity where you can help out? These organizations are usually grateful for the help, and you will find that the small amount of time these activities take will not detract from your job search. In fact, when the day does come that you are sitting across from a potential employer and discussing an excellent opportunity, a positive demeanour will help you immensely. No employer is ever interested in someone who doesn't display a good attitude.

Solitude can also be a major factor in the deterioration of self-confidence for those experiencing job loss and the obstacles involved in finding new employment. While the old adage says "misery loves company", the truth is that commiseration can be good for you. It is difficult to prevent the feeling that you are going through something that is worse than anyone else could appreciate if you sit at home all day. Your family may be supportive, but you may still have a feeling that they really don't understand what you're going through. Find a way to spend time with others who are in similar situations. There may be free services from local non-profit agencies or networking organizations where you can meet people to share experiences and ideas. You may be able to help someone else in their search and they may be able to help you. Even if the only thing you have in common is that you're all looking for a new job, perhaps they could suggest friends or acquaintances who could be helpful to you and perhaps you could do the same for them. Either way, spending an hour or two out of the house and interacting with others will reduce your sense of being all alone in this situation and improve your attitude.

Try to focus on the positive aspects of your job search. Responses to applications, interviews, and offers, even if declined, indicate that you're on the right track. At the very least, you're being noticed and that can be one of the toughest parts of the job market. These are little victories, little crumbs of encouragement, and they should go a long way toward helping keep your spirits up. It's the lack of them that can be debilitating. If that is what you're experiencing, you have to do whatever it takes to maintain some level of self-confidence. Without it, your chances of a prospective employer believing that you are the best possible choice for a position greatly decrease. You will have the necessary skills and abilities, which is why they'll be meeting you, but you may not project the right attitude. Take the time to do something that makes you feel good every day. You won't miss anything of any consequence if you're not staring at your computer screen for an hour or two and it will make you a much better candidate when that opportunity comes along.

Gordon MacKay is a senior career advisor and coach, and a certified career development facilitator with more than 18 years of experience.

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