I’ve been a first-year teacher. I’ve done fundraising for a nonprofit. I worked in the parts department of a small business that seemingly had everything in stock except what customers asked for. I was an overseas hospice chaplain intern. And, by far, the hardest job I’ve ever had was looking for a job. (Did I mention I was a first-year teacher?)
In reality, the best way to find work and develop a career, in my experience, has been to start right where I am and commit to giving my best in whatever opportunity I can get a hold of, even if it’s small or seemingly irrelevant.
Finding the upside within the opportunities right in front of me has proven more productive than searching for an abstract “dream job.” Sending out résumés only tells only a fraction of my story because it merely tells a sanitized list of what I have already done. The more effective career communication tool is working up a sweat saying “yes” to the unglamorous work I have right now, proving what I am capable of doing in the present and into the future. More than building my résumé, I have sought to build relationships, which have led to real opportunities, which have led to bigger responsibilities and fulfilling work.
Get over ‘I deserve better’
My experience with unemployment came several years out of college during a time of a lot of transition in my life — I had just left one career path, moved to a new city, and started a new relationship. I quickly discovered that it’s a lot easier to find a job when you currently have one. It’s a bit like trying to buy a car without having a car (which, incidentally, I was also trying to do at the same time; ill-advised).
The first offer I got was a two-month stint fundraising for a local nonprofit in a position that was just a step above volunteering. While I was grateful to have a job offer, I initially hesitated to accept the position because of some vague voice in the back of my head telling me I deserved a better opportunity.
After nursing some wounded pride, I accepted the position, which turned out to have two significant upsides that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time: first, it existed, and second, I had a great boss who inspired me and from whom I had much to learn.
The two months flew by and all the while, I continued unsuccessfully to pursue job leads. As my short-term job ended, an uncle offered me a seemingly innocuous piece of advice: ask permission to keep using office space at the nonprofit as I continue looking for jobs so that I’d at least have somewhere every day to “go to work” as I looked for work.
Prove yourself dependable
So I dutifully “reported” to my little windowless office day after day, filling out my ever-expanding spreadsheet of all the people I had met with to discuss the finer points of my résumé, who in turn did not put too fine a point on the fact that they’d “like to, but can’t” hire me just then. I quickly grew weary of feeling like each new person I met with was my boss for the day whose expectations I didn’t know how to meet.
After several months of continued job hunting, my former boss during my short-term fundraising position (whom I continued to see daily in the halls outside my “office”) got a promotion. He offered me his old job where I’d be able to continue working with him. With a characteristic glint in his eye, he explained that it seemed easier at that point to get me to actually do something useful for the agency than it would be to get me to leave.
His real reason, as he leveled with me later, was that I had proven myself dependable in the humble responsibilities of the short-term position and so he knew he could trust me to take on more. I loved my new job with the organization, and the only reason I left a few years later was to go back to school for a master’s degree.
Dig in where you are and see where it goes
Throughout my master’s program, I worked in an office at the university as a graduate student assistant. As my degree program wrapped up, I once again faced the unsavory prospect of joblessness.
I summoned a bit of my uncle’s chutzpah and floated to the office director what she might think of hiring me for a position that, unlike that first fundraising gig, didn’t actually exist. Because she knew I was diligent, she hired me — first as a graduate student assistant and then as an assistant director. Then I filled in for the other assistant director when she was out on medical leave for a year. When the director retired, I was asked to be interim director for a year, and now I’m in my second year directing the program.
You can certainly find more sophisticated professional tips for job searches elsewhere, but in the end, this is what I want to offer: this isn’t a story about just lucking out or about climbing the ladder. Rather, the real lesson for me has been how to dig in even deeper where I already am and to strive to be unflaggingly dependable in the small things.
It’s with a twinge of embarrassment that I look back and realize that the two-month fundraising stint felt “beneath me” at the time. After all, it’s the ground level that often affords the best perspective to get an accurate view of how an organization really works. And isn’t some of the most effective, appreciated leadership the kind that supports from underneath and lifts up, rather than giving top-down mandates?
Of course, not every job has viable opportunities within it, and there are myriad reasons for needing to go looking for new work elsewhere. But chances are, those “elsewhere” employers are going to want to know what you thought of your previous job and what that previous employer thought of you. And it just might be that giving your best to the task at hand leads to liking it more and finding new opportunities to contribute and grow.
And don’t forget that God is not absent from whatever situation you might be facing in your work. Cooperate with the gifts He gives you and the circumstances He places you in, and you’ll find Him providing for you — I certainly have. That means taking the here-and-now seriously and not being afraid to start small, with whatever work is right in front of you now. In the end, that’s all you can control, anyway.