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What Do You Do if You Are Jobless? Insights About the Business Brain

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While the number of planned layoffs did fall in March in the US, the rate of joblessness is still alarming. When jobs are scarce and hopelessness is rife, what can you do in a down economy where you cannot see any obvious options for return to work? How does brain science and psychology research help us deal with this?

A person who has just lost a job feels shocked, alarmed and depressed. This is understandable and to a certain extent conventional psychology teaches us that this grief reaction to loss is normal. The problem arises when the grief is prolonged due to not seeing any obvious options. In a world where resources are limited, who are the people who survive and win?

Jobless people who are reengaged in the workforce need to remember that their job loss in many instances has nothing to do with their own incapacity. It is often a product of the financial environment. As a result, taking on the emotional burden of shame and regret just adds to the burden of fear and not knowing how survival is possible. So, my first request would be to feel the fear but not the shame and regret which can be debilitating to motivation. The fear is natural, and within limits, can be motivating. When it is excessive, it may put the brain in reaction mode, and as a result, the brain may either flee opportunities or feel paralyzed in the face of them. Winners in the jobless situation never stop looking for alternatives.

This is because they understand that joblessness means that they have to climb a mountain to see the opportunities on the other side. Those who are hopeless give up because they cannot see the answer from where they are standing. But those people who move forward first are at an advantage. They use what I call "possibility thinking" rather than "probability thinking." It is absolutely true that finding a job in this economy is not highly probable for many, but totally false that it is not possible. The problem is that it takes a certain effort and motivation to pursue what is possible but not probable, and the disappointment of the job loss leaves people feeling hopeless and stuck.

I therefore advocate "possibility thinking." The reason I do is that when we feed our brains possible choices, the brain's unconscious "navigator" starts to sketch a plan to move us toward potential solutions. If at first we do not see the answers, it does not matter. Simply feeding the brain information will help us see possibilities. In the best situations, we will not only find solutions but also better alternatives than we had previously had.

So what does this translate to practically. If we know that at a brain level, we must feed the unconscious navigator (the posterior parietal cortex) and that we must continue to move rather than being paralyzed, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Look through classifieds at a set time each day. Make it a focused task rather than an incidental happening. When looking for jobs, rather than simply seeing if you like something or not, make a list of certain features that appeal to you. e.g. flexibility, work from home, short commute. This will start the process of feeding your brain information to attend to.
  2. When a job is almost what you want but not exactly what you want, ask yourself the following questions: Is there a way I can start a business like this? What is the one step above this job that would make me apply for it? What do I stand to lose by applying for it? Start going for interviews at a level that is below what you want. In this way, someone you meet may be able to refer you to a job that you actually like.
  3. Think of definite ways to motivate yourself each day. Physical exercise, a massage, or doing anything that you love will help you see the jobs that you are looking at differently.
  4. Realize that being jobless can also motivate you to stay that way. It may reduce your anxiety, and make you feel comfortable about not having to perform. Avoid being in this rut. The longer you are in it, the harder it is to leave.
  5. Being jobless is probably not your "fault." Be easy on yourself. To remind yourself of your talents, write out positive qualities about yourself a few times a week. An effective way to do this is to write out one or two letters describing why you are ideal for a job even if you are not applying for it. This will help focus your attention on your strengths.

This is just to remind you that the difficulty you experience after losing your job is not easy to get over. However, the earlier you start to move toward your next goal, the more you will be at an advantage when the opportunity arises.