Discouragement and the Power of Optimism

A few months back, I received a simple message from one of my students:

“Dear Michael,

How do you keep from getting discouraged when looking for jobs?”

It was an oddly moving moment for me. I’m well aware about how difficult and frustrating it is for college students to find work in their fields, but to be asked outright how to deal with discouragement took a certain amount of honesty and vulnerability that I found refreshing. Loaded within that brief inquiry could be all sorts of problems and concerns: what am I going to do when I have to pay my own rent? What happens when I can’t pay back student loans? How am I going to deal with the pressure and feelings of frustration, disappointment, and confusion from my parents?

There is, of course, no simple way to address all of those. They are birthed out of personal as well as systemic causes, some within our control and some far out of it. However, what is in your power is the ability to look at your situation with optimism. I don’t use that word carelessly, so allow me to elaborate: optimism isn’t ignoring the fact that things in the present moment might feel horrible.  It also isn’t as simple as just looking at the bright side of things – I’ve found such advice for difficult points in my life simplistic and those who gave it uninterested in the complexities of the problems I was facing.

What I told this student is that after I finished grad school, I struck out time and again. It took so much energy out of me that I was ready to throw up my hands and accept a life of unemployment! What kept me in pursuit of the job I ultimately ended up loving were these three mental rocks to lean on:

1) Mathematically considering the averages. If I kept applying for things I knew I was qualified for, and was continually hearing some sort of response from potential employers (although came short of actually landing the jobs), I knew that it would only be a matter of time before somebody saw my potential. Maybe since I’m sort of a weird guy, it needed to be a place like Columbia that would be a fit. And it was! I had faith that there were others out there who were in the position to hire who either were like me, or would value what someone like me had to offer. 

2) Believing that I had something to offer. Once I was able to hold this firmly in my mind, I thought of each potential job lead that I found online as not some remote possibility, but something that I knew I could do and would give every ounce of effort to proving that. With that confidence, I was able to perfect my materials, and I was able to talk about myself as a candidate that could make an immediate impact. It is much more likely for other to see your value if you can first see it yourself. 

3) Properly researching and strategizing positions that you’re interested in. It’s not at all a bad thing to “aim high”, but the risk that comes with that is continually applying for positions that you’re unqualified for, which can lead to consistent rejection and disappointment. Paying attention to where you might be a good fit and how your skills and experience relates to the position is important. Once you recognize what the right opportunities might be, you’ll feel more confident in your chances. 

After coming to these conclusions, my discouragement dissipated significantly. In this context, I define optimism as the belief that your strengths, values, and experiences will eventually lead you to some sort of success, whatever that might look like. Think about past experiences – what evidence do you have of something working out, when were you last successful, and when did you last feel like you really made a contribution? I didn’t just use job-related experiences to lead me into a optimism – any and all past positive experiences can be used to create a hopeful vision for your professional future. – Michael Goode, Career Development Coordinator at the Portfolio Center