Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

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Seeking a new position? Be persistent!

by Philippe Barbe
23 Jun 2021

Several press outlets are reporting on what’s being called “The Great Resignation” based on the numbers of resignations happening in corporate America right now. Similar to what happened during the Great Recession of 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic saw many people displaced from their roles and those who weren’t clung tightly to the job they had.

And, similar to what happened after that recession, with the fear of Covid-19 receding the pent-up demand for change is surfacing as surveys show that now that the “coast is clear” a large percentage (30% has been reported) of people now feel empowered to try something new, reevaluate their career choices, and seek new opportunities.

Having just completed a job search after the unwinding of the startup I was with, (and having done the same a few years earlier when the previous start-up I was with failed to obtain funding), I would like to offer a single piece of advice if you are looking for a new role: be persistent!

First, if you have a position today but want to make a change, that new position could take quite a while to materialize. Thus, it is wise to persist in doing a good job where you are. Of course, depending on your financial needs and the type of position you are seeking, it may take more or less time to find a good fit. An individual contributor technologist in a specialty such as AI/ML or cybersecurity may find 10 new roles a day. Not necessarily the case for senior management roles.

If you do find yourself unemployed, be very pessimistic about how long your search will take and you should be OK.

Even when you do have a solid paycheck, make sure you have what LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and his coauthor Ben Casnocha call a” Plan Z”; if everything goes horribly wrong you have something to fall on. Imagine if you had no job, and your spouse/partner got laid off such that you suddenly have no income whatsoever, what will you do? A very solid Plan Z will give you the peace of mind that you need to concentrate on looking for your next opportunity.

Most people understand that it will require some effort to land a new position and it is pretty unlikely you will get the first job you apply for. That you need to be persistent in pursuing opportunities is pretty obvious but that’s not the persistence I want to talk about.

The one I have in mind is one you need, and will need on every job, to be successful at changing. This is a form of persistence that your prospective employer may perceive without being able to put into words, that persistence that makes you a reliable person your employer can count on.

To explain the importance of persistence when changing jobs, I should describe my experience in this matter as I have changed jobs many times in my career which may not be obvious when reading my résumé.

As a professional Mathematician for over 20 years, it would appear that I did only one thing: mathematics!

But mathematics is a very large subject. Every 2 or 3 years, I would learn a totally new branch of math far outside my existing expertise. I learned differential geometry, algebraic geometry, dynamical systems, some algebraic geometry, computational geometry, representation theory, combinatorics… and other more esoteric topics. I learned them out of curiosity just for the sake of it, often discovering that they were very useful in ways that I did not expect.

Each time the experience was the same. I would open the first book I had bought on the topic, and start reading. Two chapters in I’d have the feeling of not understanding anything. Lost! Totally lost! Where was all this going? It was discouraging. Even after 15 years as a professional Mathematician, I would still pick up new topics and be totally lost. Sometimes for several weeks.

Most people would give up. They’d open the book, read for a day, feel so lost, so excluded, that they think this is not for them.

My main asset (and fault) may be that I am persistent, and my second may be that I have managed to turn this fault into a positive with the professional choices I made. I’m good at, and enjoying working on, things that I’m clueless about. At least I want not all but a part of my job to be totally new.

When searching for a position in a new field, a new industry, a new level… you will be lost. What is the jargon? What are the big issues? What are the trends? Who are the key people, the thought leaders? What is the culture? What are the best books? Where is a good place on the internet to find meaningful information? Be persistent as you search for answers and figuring all this out.

In every new job, you will be lost. And the more different from your previous job your new one is, the more you will be lost. You can be lost not only intellectually, but literally lost in the maze of a new office complex as we get back to working in the office!

The first week is full of new people, new systems, new processes, new acronyms, new problems. And the higher you go in an organization, the more daunting the problems are often just because the job covers more ground. It can be totally overwhelming. This is where it is tempting to quit! Someone told me recently that he saw an executive stay just 1 day before quitting! The diametric opposite of persistence… i.e. none.

But if you have persisted in the past when faced with that feeling of being overwhelmed by something new, you are prepared. You still feel overwhelmed, but you know how to deal with that feeling. You know how to persist.

As I would methodically do the exercises in those math books trying understand the material, I would often remember an assertion from some philosopher (was it Pascal? Descartes?) to the effect that those who do not believe in God should start praying, and that believing will come with the practice of praying. Setting aside the religious reference, I embrace the admonition when learning a new subject. Invariably after finishing a book on a new mathematical subject, I would go back to the first chapter and realize that it did make sense.

Your practiced persistence will get you through the chaos that you will perceive in a new position as the chaos begins to have some semblance of order after a week, maybe 2 weeks, maybe a month depending on the complexity of the job, your abilities and your AQ – ability to adapt - adaptability quotient. Drowning under a flood of novelty in your first week, you know that, eventually, you will touch the bottom of your misery and that from then on things will improve. You will be up to the task. You will even have a sense on how long it will take so that you can manage your own expectations. You do not give up because of a “feeling”, but you keep your head cool, focusing on the work to do.

As I would read more books on the same math topic, what originally seemed complicated would become simpler and simpler. The evidence of that would be that I’d would undertake my own work on the topic, using this new material to create new mathematics. I would realize that after reading perhaps 10 books on the subject they boiled down to a few important theorems which by then seemed really simple. Why did I need to do all this reading, all the exercises, all the efforts, to come to these two simple facts? Why did it take so much effort to get to this point where all that mattered where a couple of things which, once you know enough, are actually quite simple? Because, to know enough I had to learn, be patient, and be persistent.

Similarly, as you submerse yourself in your new environment, you will also realize that you end up relying on just a few facts, a few technologies, a few people, a few mental representations. You will get to that point because you will have been persistent and not given up, because you didn’t panic and run back to your previous job when you old boss called you to “see how it was going”.

You have been persistent, you got your new job, and you are settled in. If you think this is the end of the story then you are not persistent. You were persistent maybe, but now you lost it.

Now that you have the new job, now that life is going your way and you’re enjoying the fruits of your persistence it’s time to employ your REAL persistence… open a book on a new subject… be it your next move within or outside your organization, be it an upgrade of your education or technical skills, be it in how you do your job, how you lead.

Exercising your persistence to get through enough changes in your life and it becomes second nature. It will give you the confidence to tackle new challenges. You may not have done what you are tasked to do, but you know you can do it.

That confidence, well-founded and well- grounded in your experience, is what will make you successful.

Because you will have been successful in your previous changes, people will be less afraid to bring in the outsider that you are.

Because you built an inner realistic trust in your own capacities, you can interview with more ease.

And, you will start your new job more confident even if you are drowning under the number of new things to absorb, and that will put you in a better position for success and your next change.

All it takes is persistence. Persistence in changing is your best preparation of success at change. Make changing a constant in your life. You have done it, you are doing it, and because you are persistent, you will keep doing it.

Persistently change!