One of the things I miss most about Alaska, where I grew up, is the incredible fishing.  In fact, one of the stories I remember most vividly from my youth was a time when my dad and I were out on the boat, in a place called Auke Bay, and got a huge strike (fish hitting the line) from a fairly sizable King salmon.  Oddly, though, when this happened, it was immediately obvious the fish wasn’t behaving normally.  In most cases, when you’ve got a salmon on the line, it immediately takes off as fast as possible in one direction, runs for 100 yards or so, and then finally tires out before you can start reeling it back to the boat.  This peculiar fish, however, was marching to a different drummer.  Instead of grabbing the line and heading for the hills, we noticed this salmon would sprint 10 yards one way, immediately change course, take off in another direction for 10 or so yards,  change course again, and keep doing this over and over again in the weirdest way.

When we finally got the fish reeled in, and I clambered down on the back steps of boat to snare it with the net, it suddenly became obvious why our finned friend was acting in such a bizarre fashion.  Right when I was nosing it into the net, this huge black-and-white shape emerged out of the depths in front of me, gnashing row upon row of enormous white teeth!  As it turns out, in addition to having the bad fortune of biting OUR hook, this poor salmon was also being chased by a killer whale the entire time we had it on the line.  No wonder it was being so un-salmon-like and engaging in frantic evasive maneuvers!

Believe it or not, this nostalgic story reminds me of the behaviors I see among my client base from time to time.  Often, when people come in and share their career-related challenges with me, and I give them advice on how to fix them, their resulting behavior seems about as irrational and unpredictable as that displayed by the salmon in the story above.  For example, a person might complain about how long they’ve been out in the market and how badly they want to be working again, but when you tell them the steps they need to follow to improve their success rate, they’ll show up — weeks later — not having lifted a finger or done a single thing that was recommended.

Alternatively, a person may tell you how passionate they are about a given field or industry, but then when you suggest they channel this interest into a course of self-study, some blog reading on the subject, some power networking, or going to a few relevant events on the topic around town, they sort of shrug and want none of it.

Well, it finally hit me that the explanation to most of this bizarre behavior was probably rooted in a four-letter word: FEAR.  Just like a salmon running frantically from a 13,000 pound whale, I think a lot of job hunters are almost totally paralyzed by fear, but aren’t admitting it, even to themselves.  Having observed so many job hunters operating in quirky and unproductive ways, even when it’s crystal-clear what they need to be doing to help themselves, the more I’ve come to believe that fear is a master of disguise and a very “malleable” emotion.  It’s got a self-preservation instinct.  It doesn’t usually want to be brought to the surface, so ends up exhibiting itself in all kinds of other ways we might not always recognize, at first.

Let’s take a more specific example.  When the average unemployed person asks me for advice on how to generate more interviews, I will usually tell them, among other things, that they need to average at least five outbound contacts a day to have much chance of improving their success.  There are just too many candidates out there right now, chasing too few positions, to not approach a job search as a “numbers game” in many respects.  When these people come back a few weeks later, however, and haven’t averaged even CLOSE to this number of contacts, I find it very peculiar that they never say:

1)  “I’m afraid to make these contacts, since I think I’ll look stupid or get rejected.”
2)  “I don’t know what I’m doing or how to find five separate things a day to take action around.”
3)  “Matt, I know you’re an expert and all, but I don’t trust this advice you’re giving — and therefore have chosen not to follow it.”

Any of these responses would be perfectly logical, in this situation, and we could productively address them.  INSTEAD, though, what people usually say is something more along the lines of:

1)  “I wasn’t sure who exactly to call.” (despite the fact that we made a list of specific names together)
2)  “I wasn’t sure exactly what to say.” (despite the fact that we wrote the script out together)
3)  “I wasn’t sure why so-and-so would want to talk to me.” (despite the discussion we had about how the unpublished job market works)
4)  “I didn’t see any jobs listed that fit me on their website.” (despite the discussion we had about how the unpublished job market works)
5)  “I made 1-2 calls, but stopped, because I wasn’t getting through to anybody.” (despite the fact that these results were anticipated)
6)  “I thought it would be better use of time to polish up my resume.” (despite agreeing the resume was already in great shape)
7)  “I ended up going to a networking event or responding to some ads instead — doesn’t that count?” (despite the fact that it doesn’t)
9)  “I didn’t get to it — I had other things come up.” (despite saying my job search was my highest priority)

Based on this common pattern, which I’m sure every career counselor out there has had to deal with, as well, one could deduce that many out-of-work professionals today are simply ignorant, lazy, or unable to follow directions.  I don’t think this is it, however.  I think it’s fear.  I think this type of behavior is caused by a nefarious emotion, deep down in the dark waters, that has the ability to lash out in many different directions and manifest itself in the form of “cognitive rationalization” without people even realizing it.  I don’t see any other explanation for such behavior, since people certainly can’t have performed this way and been successful in their previous jobs.  They couldn’t have been asked to launch a software product and then come back to the boss, weeks later, saying “Yeah, I didn’t really know what to do, so I just went out and played golf instead.”

In many ways, it’s related to an article I wrote a year or two ago you’ll find here that asks whether the average job hunter today actually DOESN’T know what to do to find work – or simply isn’t WILLING to do the necessary things, at the end of the day.  It’s a question definitely worth pondering, if you’re in transition, since it’s counterproductive to keep telling yourself you don’t know what you should be doing — and paying consultant after consultant, seeking new answers — if the root of the problem is instead your own lack of self-confidence, fears about the market, or unwillingness to get out of your comfort zone.

Please note, in closing, that I certainly am not judging people for being fearful about things or having very strong anxieties about their career future, given current market conditions.  If anything, I would love people to be MORE open about these issues.  I think it’s high time, however, that we called this sneaky and manipulative emotion out in the open, where we can deal with it.  It’s sabotaging too many quality professionals right now in their quest for new employment!