I feel that I’m hitting that point in every recent graduate’s life; that unpleasant moment when concepts and ideas that once filled me with existential dread now start to hold some appeal. Concepts such as ‘an updated CV’ and ‘signing up for LinkedIn’. I can feel the inner manchild screaming in horror at the very notion, but even the inner manchild needs to eat at the end of the day. And if I’m to eat, I need to see about finding work.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying “good god, but job hunting sucks.”
Putting yourself out there for the consideration of strange, faceless organisations who stand ready to barrage you with open questions clinically engineered to test your competence (assuming they even deem you worthy to question) is an extremely daunting task, especially if your mental health is affecting you: it’s not easy to talk yourself up if your own opinion of yourself ranks you slightly lower than single-cell organisms and those people who refuse to follow the round system at the pub.
Given that I’m currently trying to ride the job-seeking train (hopefully to Employment City) and simultaneously trying to keep my own brain in check so that it doesn’t drag me off somewhere dark and unpleasant, ideas for how to handle these joint pressures have been close to my mind of late.
It’s because of this that I’ve been turning to the advice left to us by the Stoics. As it transpires, they actually have a lot to offer us in this area.
“Happiness is a good flow of life.” – Zeno of Citium
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that can be traced back all the way to Ancient Greece, and argues that:
“…the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”
It’s adherents have included everyone from Seneca, the rather tragic tutor of the Roman emperor Nero, and Marcus Aurelius, the most based of Roman emperors who not only managed to hold off Germanic hordes but also found the time to write books on his chosen philosophy. In essence Stoicism is a philosophy that tries to elevate its adherents above physical and external pains, focusing on mental discipline and an understanding of what we can and cannot control as humans.
That’s a bit of a simplified overview, of course, since I really want to focus on what stoicism can offer us when preparing for the process of finding work. If you’re interested in going into a bit more depth, however, I highly recommend checking out blogs like Modern Stoicism and The Ancient Wisdom Project’s explorations of the subject. For our purposes today, I want to focus on two of the more practical teachings this philosophy offers: the acceptance of things outside our control and ‘negative visualisations’. Both of these techniques have been of great benefit to me over the last few months as I’ve begun the process of finding further work after my current contract ends.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
The biggest fear stemming from job applications (for me at least) is putting yourself out there to be judged by external forces.
You’re effectively prostrating yourself before an interview board and desperately seeking their approval in order for them to view you favourably and offer you a job: it’s a deeply uncomfortable experience, particularly when you’ve been brought up in a culture that admonishes self-aggrandisement. Like the UK Where I live. You can see the issue here, I think. The very thought of having to talk myself up when I feel so down a lot of the time can sometimes be enough to inspire nervous sweats.
This is where the Stoics can help.
The judgement of others is, by definition, an outside event. Something you do not have any control over. You can influence it, of course. Interview skills, a good CV and careful preparation can all contribute but ultimately, it is something that exists outside of your ability to dictate. Stoicism teaches us that the only things worth fretting over are things we can change ourselves: the opinions of interviewers are therefore not something worth worrying about. They are what they are, and no amount of stressing and panicking over them will be able to change it.
Focus instead on the things you do control: your presentation, your ability to communicate with others. These are things you can change and dictate, and are thus far more worthy candidates for mental strain than things you cannot.
As Epictetus puts it in his ‘The Art Of Living’:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
The Stoics remind us which aspects of job hunting are important to keep our attention on, and which we ought to put to one side. It’s not an easy lesson to learn, but if you can manage it you have a significant advantage in the fight to keep your head on straight when applying for work.
“Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.” – Seneca The Younger
The Stoics liked to think about the darker parts of life a lot.
All those grim and unpleasant prospects we’d rather avoid. The death of family members, illness, failure and humiliation. They practised a kind of mental exercise in which they would deliberately ponder the ways in which things could go horribly, irrevocably wrong for them in life, and they did this regularly. Later philosophers such as William Irvine have coined the term ‘negative visualisations’ to describe this rather strange exercise.
This is not to say that the Stoics were morbid. At least not purely for the sake of being morbid.
In carrying out these negative visualisations, the stoics sought to prepare themselves mentally for the difficulties life can throw at people. They argue that anxiety, anger and despair stem from situations in which life pulls the rug out from under us when we’re not expecting it: by forever expecting the rug to start vanishing under our feet, they were thus able to cope with the strains life can offer.
The big fear that often occurs as a result of putting yourself out there to seek work can be paraphrased pretty simply: “what if I don’t get the job?” What if no work comes our way, and we find ourselves unable to afford the lifestyle we are currently used to? Conventional wisdom states that we should push such thoughts from our mind, tells us that we’ll be okay. The Stoics reject such platitudes and instead argue that by preparing yourself for the worst you are thus far more able to face the outcome whatever it may be.
Such an exercise is therefore highly beneficial when mentally preparing yourself for many aspects of job hunting. By curbing your expectations and steeling yourself for the worst, you will find yourself far more able to cope with the strains and stresses that come from seeking employment.
“We are, each of us, stronger than we think.” – Marcus Aurelius
There is a great deal of valuable concepts and knowledge to be gained from the study of old philosophies and ideas. Entire books and blogs have been written on such things, and the fact that they keep being written and read widely shows that there might well be something to it. Yet Stoicism is particularly applicable to the tougher, more straining aspects of life. It’s a very practical philosophy, grounded and focused on ways to better cope with the things that often knock us sideways.
Job hunting definitely qualifies as such a thing.
These two lessons from the philosophy of the Stoics are by no means the only lessons they offer, but when it comes to keeping my head on straight whilst searching for work they’ve been the ones I’ve found to be the most beneficial.
The Stoics don’t hold our hands and tell us that everything is going to be alright. They refuse to sugarcoat things and set you up for an even greater fall. Instead, they seek to prepare you for the difficulties life can throw your way; not out of despair or some nihilistic urge, but because they think you can take it. That you can shoulder the burden and push through anyway. It won’t be easy. It won’t always go your way.
But the Stoics believe that people are far stronger than they give themselves credit for.
That strikes me as a valuable thing to remember when on the hunt for work.