Reading Robert Sullivan's, The Thoreau You Don't Know, recently inspired me to visit the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. The museum contains the furnishings from Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond along with a replica of Emerson's study, and it is easy to imagine the two of them there engaged in lively conversation.
Thanks to the book and my visit I have been able to shape a much clearer mental picture of Thoreau than the one I had before, that of the naturalist loner, and I have come to appreciate how much time this "classically trained handyman" (Sullivan) spent looking for work in a tough economy.
Thoreau knew how to work with both his hands and his head. In the course of his relatively brief life, he taught school, farmed, mastered the craft of pencil making, fixed and built machines, surveyed land, and shoveled manure. In between he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, poems, essays, and a journal that runs to 47 volumes.
Of necessity (and I believe choice as well), Thoreau also knew how to attend to the practical realties of life, while at the same time pursuing a greater purpose. He often earned his keep by taking care of the daily needs of others, e.g. serving as a secretary and au pair for Emerson.
It was Emerson, who in 1843 arranged for Thoreau to go to New York City to tutor his brother William's son. Thoreau saw this opportunity as a means to an end—breaking into the publishing industry. His heart wasn't in the task of tutoring, but it provided room and board and access to editors and publishers in the city who might hire him.
Months ago, in the early stages of the economic downturn we're in now, I read a report in the New York Times that over half of working adults were worried about losing their job. My instincts tell me that this proportion has significantly risen since then. Let's face it—it's hard to rest easy when giants like GM are tumbling.
Since there is so much anxiety these days, I decided to take a closer look at it by reading Edward Hallowell's book, Worry.
According to Hallowell, worry actually has a valuable purpose. It's there to alert us to danger and prompt us to take protective action. Unfortunately, being human, we have a tendency to let our imagination run away with us and create perceptions of danger that are not real.
Which is why Samuel Johnson, a consummate worrier himself, said back in the 18th century, “Worry is the disease of the imagination.”
It's important for me to get out of the office on a regular basis and talk with groups of people who, in the neat language of business jargon, are part of a statistic called "job churn," the movement of people in and out of the labor market. Right now, churn—which suggests violent splashing—is making us all feel like we're traveling on very rough seas and producing a lot of queasiness.
Although I regularly see individual clients in career transition who often feel as if they are in a small boat in an ocean of uncertainty, I find being in the company of a group of people who have given up an evening or Saturday morning to attend one of my presentations a very different experience.
It is more like riding the subway or a bus rather than driving my own car. When I use mass transit, I'm just another passenger sharing a journey with others from one stop to another. It's no longer the other drivers and me in our separate vehicles en route to different destinations. We're all in it together, which is exactly how it feels when I step into a library meeting room, community center or church hall and start to talk informally with people who have come to hear me speak. And, just like the subway, I never know who will sit down next to me or how my world will expand as a result.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when I met an attractive middle-aged woman at one of my seminars who claimed she already knew me.
I am often asked to present at large business gatherings, the kind that offer ample opportunities for networking.
Recently at a particularly well attended event, I overheard a woman who was just leaving say with great excitement that she had had a great networking day.
She had come with a hundred business cards and was leaving without a single one!
When I heard this, I couldn't help thinking of all the times I've put my hand in my jacket pocket after one of these events and pulled out a handful of business cards without a clue who the people were or why I thought I'd ever want to talk with them again. They were just names to me.
On the other hand, whenever I've had a real conversation with someone and felt a genuine connection, I've always made a point to get their contact information, even if I had to jot it down on the back of a napkin or a receipt.
A few years ago, I did a full-day workshop on transition for a group of alumni of Bentley College. Right after we finished lunch, just before we started back again, someone expressed frustration with the inefficiency and wastefulness of traditional job-search practices, and I made the offhand remark, “If I had my way, we’d throw out resumes and stop networking.”
It was as if an electric charge went through the room. Thirty business professionals, all of them well-trained in the standard job-search methodologies, came alive. They knew instinctively there had to be a better way.
I’ve often wished I could have put aside the agenda I had planned for the afternoon to pursue the subject with them. What I suspect would have happened is that they would have told me they keep following the standard practices because they don’t know what else to do. The inability to answer the question, “What do I do instead?” is the reason people looking for work keep doing the same old things and expecting different, less frustrating results.
In last month’s column I described how a consultative sales approach made it possible for employees who were unaccustomed to functioning as salespeople to be effective in that role.
A consultative sales approach is just as valuable to people who are engaged in work search, whether they have been laid off or have chosen to go out on their own. After all, work search is sales, and many people who find themselves thrown into it feel out of their element.
Yet they can be effective and comfortable in selling themselves if they pattern their work search on a consultative approach rather than aggressively cultivating leads and pushing to close the deal.>
In last month’s column I talked about how educated consumers are bringing about the extinction of the hard-driving salesperson at the same time that businesses are facing unprecedented competitive challenges.
It makes perfect sense for businesses who are trying to stay profitable in this new environment to set the goal of having every employee contribute to the revenue stream. It’s the lifeblood of the organization. But forcing an aggressive sales model onto people who aren’t ready for it is counterproductive. Trying to get “non-sales” people to sell in a way that is not comfortable for them, and is no longer effective anyway, just isn’t going to work.
It leads to the loss of people who have built invaluable relationships with their customers over time, and it overlooks qualities that make them ideally suited for building new relationships that will assure long-lasting revenue streams.
It may seem odd to be talking about starvation at a time when most of us are indulging in an abundance of holiday food, but the starvation I’m referring to has nothing to do with what we consume by mouth and everything to do with how we nurture our professional growth.
As I write this column (the week before Thanksgiving) I know there are business professionals who hunger for a little time and space to reflect on where they are in their lives, just as people in third world countries hunger for a bowl of rice. The difference is that for the professionals the starvation is self-imposed.