There’s nothing like an extended job search to make you wonder whether you belong anymore. Could you belong somewhere again?
Where do you belong?
There’s nothing like an extended job search to make you wonder whether you belong anymore. Could you belong somewhere again? Could you be valuable to a company someday? Will this ultimately make sense in some way?
I wrote that first line in my journal just a week or so ago. The thoughts following it are paraphrased from the rest of the entry. We have no idea what the duration of our search is going to be. It feels like a journey which, at times seems to have a destination and at other times seems to be going nowhere.
What I learned about my half year in the job search wilderness was that my experience of looking for work came directly from how I felt about myself in relation to others. It was really about whether I could be accepted or not. It was just about whether I could find a place I could be part of. It was all about whether I felt I could belong.
The process of searching for a job necessarily involves putting yourself out there and facing possible rejection. When it’s an impersonal rejection in the form of an email from a potential employer which says “thank you for your interest but we’ve identified other candidates”, that can be easily brushed off. When we get deep into the selection process with one particular employer and are then eliminated, that can be harder to accept. I think it’s because it speaks to our fear that our elimination is somehow a reflection of our lack of value, in some intangible way. At a fundamental level we need to belong, and rejection is the ultimate statement that we don’t. At least to that employer.
Before I write anything else I really want to say one thing to all of you: you do belong.
Do you remember past employers and former teams you were on? You belonged there with each and every one of them. Do you remember contributing and producing work of value? I’m sure you do, because you did. You were recognized and rewarded. You were valued for that work. Do you remember the friendships you gained? I’ll bet you do. Your membership in those groups, the friends you developed, the problems you solved, and everything about those experiences lives on inside you. It has not disappeared. You still belong. And you will belong yet again.
It seems that we humans have a bit of a tendency to be hard on ourselves. We constantly search for evidence of how useful and valuable we are. We often discover the opposite — reasons to be embarrassed and even ashamed. This only adds unpleasantness to a day that is already too long. I for one would like to smooth out the wrinkles somehow. It’s getting harder to get through the day where I’m getting beaten up frequently and most often by my own attitude about myself. I don’t need applicant tracking systems to pile dung onto the heap. I don’t need company rejection emails. I’m already heaping enough on myself.
To make this a little more real I thought I’d categorize some of the forms of friction I have waded through in my career. Some may be familiar to you.
I struggled with a sense of belonging in many jobs because I felt at times that I was only emulating a sort of “ideal employee”, and it was a matter of time before they figured it out. How could I feel like I belonged when I was concerned they were going to show me the door, maybe next week?
The “dad-provider” thing
This stipulates that a good dad puts his role as provider above all else in his life. (This applies to moms, too, of course, but I’m just telling my story.) I often felt like I didn’t even belong in my own family because somehow I often felt I came up short of being the ideal dad who provided all the things his family deserved. They deserved so much more than I was able to provide for them. Or so the narrative goes.
Your worth is tied to income and influence
We are taught this from the moment we cry out to clear our newborn lungs. In both subtle and overt ways we have been taught this by our parents, the educational system, our society, and our culture. Since I was never at the top of the heap in terms of income or influence, how could I even consider myself as belonging to a company, our society, and even our culture? Good grief, my car is over ten years old. How can I even leave the house?
You can only be one thing
In job-search terms that equates to what you’ve been doing in the most recent ten years. All you could ever be is what you’ve done in the last ten years (and that has to be very tightly defined and a simplistic concept that even a search engine can recognize). The depth and breadth of what you have to offer has to take a back seat to search-engine recognizability. I often felt like I didn’t truly belong because I had much more to offer than the person in the profile I was required to present in LinkedIn and Indeed.
All this friction is why I have felt, many times, that I didn’t belong. We can’t let these artificial mandates — which have been thrust upon us — be the guiding rules for deciding whether or not we feel like we belong.
Too often I find myself answering to these internal monologues. They’re like little programs installed in me that say things like…
- They’re going to find out that you’ve been faking it.
- You aren’t doing enough. You could do better. Your kids are paying the price.
- Other people earn higher pay and have more responsibility. Aren’t you worth that, too?
- You’ve always been a banker/barista/steel worker. You can never be anything but a banker/barista/steel worker.
- Your car is over ten years old.
These little program voices are so critical. And they’re in my head. How do I shut them up? How do I uninstall them?
I’m not sure of the answer for me, personally. For you, however, there are some things I am certain of. You’ve been legitimate at what you’ve done through most of your career. You built things, you wrote things, you helped people. You were respected. You were valued. And there is a reason why: because you were authentically you. You always belonged.
You did a great job with your spouse and your family (if you had one). If your kids have grown up, ask them. You’ll find they understood more than you could have ever guessed. They saw how hard you worked. They saw what you did for them. They always felt that you belonged.
It turns out that what really only matters are the friendships and relationships you’ve had. It didn’t matter so much whether you took high-end vacations, or gave cars to your kids for their graduations. They really only wanted you to be a part of their life. And you were. So you always belonged. Even when you weren’t sure you did.
You probably did volunteer things. You helped your community, your neighbors, or your place of worship. You used all the skills and capabilities you had, those you’ve always known about, but your job didn’t tap into. In doing so you found that you belonged with your friends, with groups in the community, and in volunteer organizations. They all felt that you belonged. It was important to them when you showed up.
So don’t let the search engines, rejection emails, or interviews without offers leave you questioning whether you belong or not. Maybe that next job is not in your binoculars right now, but I am sure it’s somewhere just over the horizon. Somewhere out there is a workplace where you will be valued. You will be needed. You will contribute. You will find that you belong.