When I was a kid, I often heard my parents tell me to think positive. It was
a kind of declaration, much like "clean your room": easy to say, harder to do.
I remember thinking to myself, "Really? I don't think I can change how I feel
And you know what? It's true. I can't change how I feel.
I can only change how I act. I'll explain.
Encounter With A Stranger
Today, I took a break over lunch to go fly my model aircraft. It's a fun pastime,
and even though lunch tends to go a little long when I do so, none of my
co-workers or boss has ever complained as long as I get my work done on time. I
saw a few familiar faces -- the community of
modelers isn't very large, after all -- and then one new one. I flew my
helicopter a couple of times, watched one of the familiar faces fly his
helicopter, then sauntered over under the shade awning to chat until my
lunch break was over.
Well, I got in a discussion with the new face. Let's call him "Red". Red was
prepping a gorgeously-detailed, 30%-scale
Sopwith Pup to fly. We talked about the plane, about some of his trials
keeping the plane looking nice despite the toxic gasoline
exhaust, and smoke systems. While discussing smoke systems, he mentioned he
no longer had the cash to buy much of anything. The conversation drifted to
what he was doing flying in the middle of the day on a Friday.
Turns out he's unemployed as a civil engineer. And
he's been unemployed for the better part of a year. The housing
bust, of course, has really had an impact on this industry. I immediately
empathized. There was a time I'd gone through seven employers in as many years and
experienced long droughts of unemployment in between. This made me grateful for
my current job; despite the lack of growth of substantial raises, it's been
stable for the past six years. Anyway, Red's wife has been picking up the
slack, but his unemployment runs out in a few
more months, and he's not certain what he's going to do. I learned a few
salient facts about him during this conversation:
- He believed himself to be in very high demand two years ago.
- He has interviewed nine times for a job this past year. In several cases,
they had narrowed the field, but typically down to as many at 10 applicants
for the position. He believes they are discriminating based on his age.
- He's mad as hell about the lack of employment. He'd love to move
somewhere with a better construction market, but doesn't believe his wife
would tolerate such a move.
- When he learned that my employer has been having trouble filling an IT
position in Salt Lake, he quickly listed his qualifications for IT --
typical word processing, AutoCAD, and basic networking skills -- but was
utterly clueless what I was talking about when I described the open
position. Nevertheless, he gave it the old college try and gamely explained
how he was the guy to fill this position.
A few things stood out to me from this conversation, chief of which was that
Red really let his
unhappiness bleed into his conversation with a relative stranger. Here we
are, both of us experiencing a recreational activity we enjoy, and he's
grousing to me about his situation. I analyzed the facts.
- He was in high demand when the market for construction-related jobs had a
very high demand. In the current housing slump, he's wasted a year trying
to get a job doing what he's trained to do, unsuccessfully. What has he
been doing with his time? This doesn't speak well of his motivation. If I
spent more than 3 months unemployed, you bet I'd find a job that paid
better than my unemployment benefits just to tide myself over.
- He thinks interviewing nine times is some kind of Herculean feat. The
reality is, if you're working your contacts like you should, you should be
doing nine interviews a month at the very least. This tells me that he
doesn't know how to manage his time effectively while he's unemployed. Age
doesn't matter to me, but motivation does; if you're content to rest on
your laurels and aren't interested in tackling new problems, I'm not that
interested in helping you.
- If Red is letting his anger so clearly take control of an almost
cost-free conversation with a stranger, how much is his anger bleeding into
his personal and professional lives? I understand the desire to vent. I
really do. But venting toward anyone who might be in a position to give you
a job is a really, really bad idea. Angry outbursts, disrespectful
judgments, selfish demands, and annoying habits will turn anybody off
toward being around you. Despite his obvious modeling talent, within
moments I was wishing I hadn't engaged him in conversation due to this
- When you're out of your depth on a technical topic, making stuff up to
try to sell your abilities is also a huge turn-off. It makes me wonder what
else you might make up down the road. Such bravado comes off as desperate,
Negative Encounters Affect You Negatively
Obviously Red is competent at his chosen profession, but what turned me off
was his consistently negative attitude. I've heard the phrase "the power of
positive thinking" my whole life, but I've learned something as an adult.
It's not thinking positive that gives you the power.
It's acting positive that gives you the power.
I'll illustrate a few "don'ts" using Red's position. I totally understand
the depth of bitterness and humiliation that extended unemployment brings. But
following a few simple action rules could have made me much more interested in
helping him, rather than finding an excuse to get away from him.
- Never demand that people see things your way or try to educate them if
they disagree. Instead, see how your demands can be turned into thoughtful
requests that honor the time of the person with whom you are speaking.
- Never make a disrespectful judgment in order to get your way. You may
think you're just "telling it like it is", but insulting all your
prospective employers with allegations of discrimination isn't likely to
win you many friends... and in a job market as small as the one in Utah,
most people in an industry know many others in similar positions and word
gets around about disgruntled employees.
- Never resort to an angry outburst to try to get your way. It's abusive
and makes people dislike you.
- Dishonesty is never positive. If you're out of your depth, own that fact.
I'd rather know that you know that you don't know something than try to
make something up and look foolish.
Now a few things to practice:
- Open each conversation with a new person with a smile, a handshake, and a
polite inquiry about them.
- Focus on the positive things in your life when talking with others. Help
them feel good about what you are doing and what you want to do.
- Ignore your failures in the conversation. If you must discuss them, talk
about what you learned from the experience... not how unfair things
- Ask positive questions. Almost everybody loves to talk about themselves.
If you keep the conversation focused on what you can do about a situation,
rather than what's gone wrong, you'll find a lot of progress.
- If you must discuss the negative things in life, talk to your dog. He'll
look on empathetically and appreciate you scratching his ears while you
make those odd grunting and growling sounds. Or keep a journal to vent.
Don't vent at other people, particularly not at people who you have any
reason to believe might be in a position to help you in the future.
If you'd like more tips on how to ensure that you treat every contact with
someone as a potential for a rewarding relationship in the future, I cannot
recommend more highly the book by the Arbinger Institute, "Leadership
and Self-Deception". I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's basically a
fictionalized account of how acting in new ways can radically and permanently
improve your life. It's difficult to describe, but reading it and practicing
the concepts -- all of which are presented in an entirely non-denominational
way, with only the briefest advertisement for the Institute's corporate
services -- changed my life for the better, and I know it can change yours.
To summarize, treat each person you meet with respect for their potential,
and if you must discuss others, do so with respect for them and an assumption
of positive intentions. Avoid the conversation-wrecking behaviors of demands,
disrespect, anger, and dishonesty. Focus on asking plenty of positive and
uplifting questions; if both of you engage in this behavior, you'll find you
both have plenty of time to talk about yourself.
You can't control your feelings.
You can control your actions.
Act positive, and the world will treat you in a much more positive way!