If you’ve been unemployed for a while, consider a career change

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I know this isn't what you want to hear, but the people who are incredibly good at what they do are not unemployed. So if you are unemployed, you probably are not outstanding in your chosen profession. Sorry. But don't feel too bad, because everyone is great at something — you just need to find that thing. And there's no better time to soul-search than when you aren't making money anyway: No lost opportunity cost.

People who have incredible achievements in their career or show amazing promise have resumes that get snapped up quickly. Hiring managers receive hundreds of resumes for each job opening, and invariably, three or four of these resumes are outstanding. If your resume is not outstanding, you will not rise to the top of one of these piles.

Sure, there are exceptions: your idiot college roommate who is making six figures or the incompetent co-worker who survived the layoff that you did not. But I bet you cannot think of someone who has rocked the world of every boss she's had yet hunts hopelessly for a job.

Still wondering if you're one of the best? Well, if you haven't received some sort of offer in five or six months, that is not a good sign. Doors open when someone incredible knocks — even companies with hiring freezes make exceptions for outstanding candidates. Mike Russiello, CEO of Brainbench, says, “Companies are getting very good at identifying top performers — looking at things like, past roles in projects, certifications, and how someone interviews.” You are not going to fake anyone out with inflated Internet titles or achievements you cannot quantify. If you're not top you're not top.

And do not try to console yourself by saying that you are a rare find who suffers from bad networking. Sure, good networking helps. But the truth is that if you really are a rare find, the network comes to you. If you are amazing at your chosen profession, people call you, people check in with you, people want to be near you. You don't need good networking skills to answer your phone when it rings. You only need good networking skills to compensate for the fact that no one calls.

But instead of banking on good networking skills, how about changing careers to do something at which you are, indeed, outstanding? Unemployment is a great point in life to make use of excess time to figure out where your gifts really lie and what you really love to do.

Most people who are not outstanding in their job are not doing what they really love. The good news is that if you do what you love, you're more likely to end up rich. One survey of 1500 undergraduate business students found that 87% of the students said they wanted to make money quickly and figure out self-fulfillment later. The remaining 13% of the students said gratification was more important than money. Twenty years later 101 of those students were millionaires and all but one of those students were from the group who said gratification was more important than money.

There's nothing like a bad economy to make you more honest with yourself. Less money to go out to dinner, less money to go shopping: Try sitting at home and doing some soul-searching. At least entertain the possibility that you are not that great at your work and your talents lie somewhere else. You can spend another six months sending out mediocre resumes to scarce job leads, or you can recreate yourself as a person who is in love with your career choice and more passionate and competent than any of your competitors.

Change is difficult. And career change is especially scary. But in this economy, some people will find that not changing is more risky than changing.

14 replies
  1. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I just would like to say that not all outstanding employees get to keep their jobs. This is a very negative column.

    • C
      C says:

      I agree. So many different reasons why employers lay off now it makes one dizzy. I was a female in the Automotive Technologies and you all know where GM ended up for a long while. :o( So I went back and got my cosmo license reinstated because after 3 years of seeing all the dealerships of GM go the way of the dinosaurs here, I figure im not going to make any $ searching for a nonexistant job. So “hair” I go again. :o)

  2. Ann
    Ann says:

    This column may sound negative but it is realistic. In the 18 years I’ve worked and a total of 8 companies I’ve worked at with a total of 10 positions in all, the longest I have ever been out of work was 3 months—and that was because I was changing careers. Even in a tough economy, my batting average for being out of work from the time I lost a job to landing a new job was 5-6 weeks tops. I’m not an executive……just a simple mid-level employee. However I keep my resume very up to date with every skill and certification I have. When you are good, the network follows you and so do the jobs. In response to the comment above—yes, not all outstanding employees get to keep their jobs and life is not fair—but if you are good, you will land quickly.

    Just my two cents on the subject.

    • elaine anderson
      elaine anderson says:

      I don’t really agree with everything you say. There is one of the worst recessions in living memory, and I certainly haven’t seen it like this before. I have not been out of work, but since the construction industry is in the doldrums, and I have done a lot to market myself, it riles me to think that I had delivered excellent work, and to read your articles is enough to give me a complex, let alone consider change. We all change with our circumstances, but I fear that there is not a lot left and one cannot keep on globetrotting with ones suitcase. I have always gone out to get work, in all sorts of situations and countries, so I will not be buying your book on how to get rich quick or how to do anything, thank you.

  3. Zach
    Zach says:

    In the current socioeconomic climate the naivete of this column -already somewhat apparent in 2003- is glaring. The implicit assumption here is that opportunity awaits for anyone who is good at what they do. The column skirts any kind of specific analysis, ignores the seismic shifts the US economy is undergoing due to globalization and other factors (e.g., deindustrialization) and therefore consitutes nothing more than a series of motivational platitudes. What if you are excellent at what you do, but there is no market demand for it? The phrase, “if you do what you love, you’re more likely to end up rich” belongs in a book of children’s fairy tales and is risible to anyone who has done serious outreach or community work.

  4. Kay
    Kay says:

    I’ve read about a dozen articles in a row now and I have to say, at first, stumbling onto this site was a very welcome, pleasant surprise. It was great to read some “as it is” advice.
    But honestly… now I have to post and say “wow”… your advice is ALL over the board. You consistently contradict yourself. And not in a “through experience, now I’ve changed my mind” kind of way. I mean just plain, “brazenly” saying one thing and then claiming the EXACT opposite as factual advice.
    Not good. Actually, quite frustrating and unappealing. Makes me question your authenticity.
    Thanks anyway, I can appreciate what you are trying to do.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      If it’s been six months since you worked, it might mean you are in an industry where there are no jobs. Which makes it a moot point whether or not you are good at that job — financial analyst comes to mind in this category — and then you need to think of another type of career.


  5. Seo-Kopiraiting
    Seo-Kopiraiting says:

    Badly need your help! Thanks for the invitation so much. I will try to come back as soon as possible. ;).
    I am from Egypt and now study English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Search engine optimization will help boost rank.Professionals to help you, all our search engine optimization services and solutions can help you.”

    Waiting for a reply :-(, Candice.

  6. Word Chat
    Word Chat says:

    Thank you for writing this thought-provoking column. I amnot sure if the question is “Are you good for your career?” or “Is your career good for you?” I have multiple awards in my chosen career, and while I have switched jobs, I’m not a serious job shifter. I realize that the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find a job. But more to the point, I think, is the older one gets, the older one questions whether this [insert career] is how they want to spend the rest of their lives. I suspect that is projected, if subconsciously, during job interviews. Personally, I have a few good prospects/interviews lined up, the the job that is calling me pays significantly less.

  7. c
    c says:

    You wrote this in 2003. God help you if you had posted this now.
    ” the people who are incredibly good at what they do are not unemployed “— What about teachers whose schools close (catholic schools)? Or people who are laid off in incredibly competitive fields? It must be quite an excellent life where everything is black and white. It must be wonderful to be you.

  8. kc
    kc says:

    There are some contradictions in your various posts. You say here, “The good news is that if you do what you love, you're more likely to end up rich.” And in another post you say, “One of the worst pieces of career advice that I bet each of you has not only gotten but given is to “do what you love.”
    Forget that. It’s absurd.”

    However, I do enjoy reading your posts, despite the contradictions. :) I think people should take these ideas as broad guides, not scripture.

  9. Tega O
    Tega O says:

    The best advice in this article is the title:
    If you’ve been unemployed for a while, consider a career change.

    The key word here is ‘consider’

  10. norman clemens
    norman clemens says:

    Dear Penelope, I read your article in’More’. I recently just met and had never before heard of Asperger syndrome. I myself have a disability-anxiety disorder–see norman clementi-hot dog vendor article in L.A. Times-circa 1992.

    I have struggled all my adult life to work in proffesional field of education but never succeeding. Hence i went on disability in late 80’s.

    Most recently, I did publish a book: “Pots Did Stop” under pen name of Norman Clemens. I have not sold enough to get even a $25.OO ROYALTY CHECK. I would like to take this occasion to ask you to check out my book. It is enigmatic and deals with philosophy/psychology BUt in Riddle form.

    Best Wishes to you and your family as well as all who have an enigma of some sort.

    Norman Clemens

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