When the Job Search Is Like a Puzzle

About a month ago my wife and our youngest kid decided we were a puzzle family. So they bought three puzzles, cleared off the dining room table, and started the first puzzle.

It went well. As it should have. We are (relatively) smart, and we had time. It was fun to spend time on a project as a family. The puzzle finished pretty quickly and I was left wondering “what is this huge hype around the world about doing puzzles? It’s too easy!”

Then, we started the second puzzle. It was way harder. Significantly harder. That’s okay though… we were puzzle rookies, and maybe we just happened to buy the hardest puzzle on the market. Somehow, with persistence, we muscled through it and finished the puzzle. Because, you know, we were smart.

Harry Potter Puzzle Job Search

So then… the third puzzle. We dumped it out on the table, flipped all the pieces right-side-up, and started finding all of the corners and edges. Immediately we realized that about 90% of the pieces all had the same coloring (black or almost black). This Harry Potter puzzle is (we still aren’t done) freaking hard. The pieces are way more varied than the other puzzles we have done. The colors are not helpful. And the way the pieces fit together are different than the other puzzles. We have definitely stepped into a new level of puzzling here. And we have, many times, questioned whether we are indeed a puzzle family or not.

Of course, me being me, I’ve thought about the parallels between our puzzling experiences and the job search. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The System that Worked Before Won’t Work Every Time

The way I did the first puzzle was WAY different than how I am approaching this puzzle. The first puzzle had so much variety in coloring and patterns of the image that I only looked at the picture. And it worked just fine. But with this puzzle there are probably 50 or 100 pieces that are just plain black. No color patterns or differentiation.

When I started my Big Failed Job Search in 2006 I had to learn completely new tactics than what I thought I would be doing. Gone were the days of buying a newspaper and sitting at the kitchen table circling job ads in the wanted section. No, no, no.

When you start your job search today you’ll learn there are new ways to do things, and that some of the old ways just won’t work anymore.

Learn Job Search Tactics From Others

While working on the last puzzle our neighbor kids were over… a seven and a ten year old girl. I was sitting at the bench and they were on either side of me, standing. They kept saying “oh! I found a swoosh!” with glee. It was exciting for them. I kept looking at the picture of what I was creating and wondering “where in the heck is the swoosh??” After about the tenth time of their excitement I asked: “What is a swoosh?” Like it’s some little girl secret that I wasn’t privy to.

I was honestly shocked when they showed me the swoosh was a certain shape on some puzzle pieces. I realized they didn’t care about the colors of the pieces, or the pattern we were looking for… they ignored both of those. They were looking at the shapes of individual pieces. These girls could have put the puzzle together upside-down because they were looking at how pieces fit together!

And, while I was staring at what was in front of me, making no progress, these girls had put in like 10 pieces. This was the perfect example of learning from others, no matter who they were. In fact, learning from these children opened my eyes in new ways. I invite you to learn from others in your job search. Learn from people outside of your industry. Learn from insiders, old-timers, and as they say in India, “freshers.”

Just learn. Be open to new ideas, methods, approaches, etc. This, by the way, is a life skill that applies to just about everything we do… not just a current job search.

Progress Is Progress

Sometimes we’ll go to bed having put in like 3 or four pieces. Or, none at all (as is the case with this Harry Potter puzzle). I’ve learned that even finding ONE piece can be a major victory. And, over time, with the help of others, one piece leads to two, which leads to three, which leads to a whole section done, and the next thing you know you are putting in that last piece.

In the job search it is easy to feel like we are not making progress at all. We go to bed and think “well, I’ve sent ten emails and left three voice mails and haven’t heard back from anyone.” Dejection. Depression. I know it well.

But, ten emails and three voice mails today, and then again tomorrow, and then again the next day, add up. Eventually you’ll talk to someone. And then you’ll get closer to, as I say, “having the right conversation with the right people.” That is, eventually talking to a hiring manager about an opportunity you are hot on. Which, by the way, what my six week job search program is all about.

I know slow progress is frustrating. Not seeing forward movement is discouraging. Just realize that everything you are doing is moving you closer to your job. I know it doesn’t seem like you’ll ever get there, but you will.

Blaming Everything Becomes the Distraction

When we started one of our recent puzzles we were absolutely sure there were pieces missing. There were about 7 edge pieces missing… and we just couldn’t find them. So we counted puzzle pieces. Have you ever done that? It’s like counting goldfish in a bag (side note: I’ve done this plenty of times, since one of the snakes I owned only ate goldfish… counting goldfish is HARD. Harder than counting chickens :p).

We counted 504 pieces. Oops. Let’s try that again. 507 pieces. Um… we were supposed to get around 493 pieces, but we aren’t just short, we are over. Turns out, we are puzzle-counting-failures. After doing this a few times we just gave up counting. My wife looked up how to report missing pieces, and we finally just realized we should get as far as we could and then figure out what was missing. That seemed to take the romance (or, sense of accomplishment) out of the whole process… but what could we do. Probably never buy from that company again.

Frustration led to blaming the system and vendor and product.

Turns out, we had exactly 500 pieces, and they were all the right pieces. We just put one piece in the wrong place, which caused a chain reaction of bad placements. Once we figured that out we moved groups of edge pieces around and finally got it right. A few days later we had a completed puzzle. All of the time we spent trying to figure out what was broken, and taking the puzzle company’s name in vain, was time misspent. Wasted.

In the job search there are plenty of people to blame. Our last boss for letting us go. The executives for having made bad business decisions. The economy, the government, our “friends” who aren’t helping us get a job at their company, the resume writer we paid, LinkedIn for being dumb, etc. etc. etc. One of the worst targets to blame is OURSELF… for whatever. This leads to self-doubt and all kinds of destructive thinking that isn’t helpful to job seekers.

Blame takes time, and it is generally destructive. Don’t get me wrong: honesty, self-evaluation, and looking at reality are all good and healthy. But don’t make this central to what you need to work on. You need to get a job. You need to figure out what the right tactics are. You need to focus on working those right tactics. Focusing on blame, and letting that consume you, will waste time and make you angry at parties that really don’t deserve your time and energy.

Compartmentalize this for later… for now, focus on the task at hand.

Puzzles, Like the Job Search, Can Be Fun and Rewarding

After all of the frustration of working through a puzzle, putting that last piece in is so rewarding! The sense of accomplishment! The feelings of pushing through the impossible, making slow progress, and finding your groove! The rewards of finishing this trivial little project are hard to explain to people who weren’t involved. But the feelings are real.

This is going to sound weird to some of you, especially introverts, but I’m here to tell you: the job search, with a heavy networking focus, can be really fun! I hated networking until I realized that networking can easily mean deep one-on-one conversations, not going to a conference room with 500 people and being super superficial. I love learning about people, and their lives and history and what drives them and what they are looking for. I love helping people, once I understand how I can help.

The job search can be so lonely. I felt like I was the only one going through the struggle… all of my friends were gainfully employed. I was the ugly duckling. But finding my groove, working through things, and having mini-victories regularly was rewarding. Finishing my job search was rewarding. Small wins were sometimes my lifeline. And the final reward was ending the job search. Enjoy the journey… appreciate your growth and success. This is another life skill.

Vision Is Everything

Everyone who does a puzzle knows how important it is to keep the picture of what you are building in front of you. Usually this is the box the puzzle came in… which is always right next to your puzzle pieces. One of our puzzles had a big “poster” that we could reference. This picture helped us know where a puzzle piece might go. It also helped us keep the end goal in mind.

In the same way, you NEED to have a vision of what you want out of your job search. I recommend visualization tactics: what kind of company do you want to work for? What kind of boss, colleagues, projects, products, customers, schedule, commute, salary, benefits, etc.?

To get through the discouraging tedium of the job search, where you feel like you are making no progress day after day, hanging on to your vision of a brighter tomorrow, and a real reason for doing what you are doing, might be the only thing compelling you to send one more email, or make one more call. Experts and motivational speakers today talk about finding your WHY. Why are you doing things? What is it you are trying to get to, or create? You have to know your why, which will drive everything else you do.

Have a vision, believe in it, and work towards it. Your next job might not fulfill your vision, but could put you on the right path to getting there.

Puzzles and the Job Search

And so there you go. My kids have no idea that while I’m looking for that next black piece I’m really thinking about you, and your job search. My Big Failed Job Search was 15 years ago, but it has left an impression that won’t go away. It was life-changing. Yours might be, too. If nothing else, I hope you come out of this more empathetic towards others struggling in their careers, and with a resolve to be more helpful.