The Stoic Job Search: Rejection and Opportunity by Andrew Overby

If you read the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or another prominent Stoic, you can come away with a good idea of how to manage a job search if you replace every “person” or “people” in the text with “job” or “job application.”

According to the good emperor:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet [job applications] who are meddling, ungrateful [and] unsocial.

As Epictetus wrote:

Remember that it is not [a job] who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When, then, a [job application] irritates you, you must know that is your own opinion which has irritated you.

Looking at potential next jobs, you’ll see some good and some worse, many that are irksome and disagreeable, and others that excite. Some opportunities will click right away, others won’t. If looking for work means exposure to a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity, if it means exposing yourself to insult, letdown, rejection, and the vagaries of other people’s opinions, then where better to turn for insight and assurance than the Stoics?

We should recall that the Stoic philosophers had a masterful understanding of human psychology, the principles of which we can take and configure for our own era and our own sets of circumstances.

A Stoic sage might think the modern-day job search is an excellent proving ground for Stoic values, riddled as it is with emotion and our reactions to external events. Sages might even come to enjoy it, seeing it as a chance to test their mettle in the day-by-day flow of optimism, pessimism, rejection, anxiety, pride, hope, progress, and the search for tranquility that marks life on the job hunt.

A sage might love this, but most of us don’t.

And since we don’t, we need to analyze it. We need to figure out how best to endure it and emerge stronger for it. How do we see it in the best light possible? What should our tactics be in warding off frustration and annoyance, for focusing on the positive?

That’s what I’ll consider below. Looking for a job is one of the most wrenching experiences in the modern workforce, one we’ll all increasingly deal with as transitions between companies and industries take place more rapidly than society’s ever been accustomed to before.

The Nature of Rejection and How to Beat It

Being in the job-searching process means facing disappointment. It can mean placing ourselves on a scale to be weighed, and sometimes be found wanting. It can mean we are placed in a position of vulnerability, giving someone else a large amount of control over us–our time and energy, our life.

It opens us to rejection. Yet the Stoics can help us stay calm and collected during the process. They remind us what lies at the root of our deep-seated fear of this particular brand of disappointment: egotism, or an overly generous sense of our own importance, as well as depending upon external approval in the first place. If instead we cultivate humility, we can more easily let go of the prideful ego that often causes us to experience rejection so painfully.

It’s hard to have tranquility on the job hunt, but that doesn’t make it less important to try. To remember how valuable tranquility is, we should remember stories like that of Musonius Rufus, the Stoic philosopher (and instructor of the more famous Epictetus) who was exiled from Rome to a barren and isolated island for years. He was banished by the emperor Nero from his home and his way of living, but he did not allow himself to feel disgraced or become a broken man. Ultimately, he returned home and resumed his former life, having endured and grown stronger.

The Stoics also remind us of the value of short memories and selective attention. What we pay attention to, we build up in the mind. If we remember that an emotion is something that we can cling to or move through, we can lessen the sting of negative sentiments like rejection. In living a satisfied life, it pays to forget. (Maybe it’s no accident that older people are generally more accepting of Stoicism.)

Rejection is temporary, if you allow it to be. Much as hedonic adaptation means we quickly get used to the finer things in life, the toughening up that comes with rejection means that future rejection will sting even less. The trick is to find balance: We can be somewhat fatalistic and dismissive enough of the past that we don’t overindulge in negativity while remaining able to hope for the future.

The longer your time horizon, the easier it is to stay hopeful.

Discomfort can be vivid in the present, but rarely is it strongly remembered. Emotions don’t age well. They exist mostly in the present tense. Since they can’t be canned for the winter or aged in a wine bottle, rest easier knowing that you’ll naturally never remember all the moments of discomfort and anxiety along the way.

On the topic of comfort, ask yourself this: If unemployed, underemployed, unengaged, or somehow out of step with your career plans or aspirations, what can you do to take comfort in the situation?

Whatever you disliked about your previous work, you don’t have to handle it anymore. Be glad about that. All those annoyances that felt so vivid no longer exist for you. How grateful are you for everything else you have, material and otherwise? Spend some time actually listing out many of these things, and you’ll literally change your perspective for the better.

And what if your job “can’t” be taken from you or lost? Thinking about job loss and job hunting has value even for people who own their own business or don’t imagine they will ever again have to bear the indignities and obstacles of the job search.

Apply the Stoic practice of negative visualization – what if your business abruptly went under next quarter because of a widespread economic meltdown and you were forced to seek employment in someone else’s company? What if your freelancing or consulting work dried up completely and you had no choice but to return to an office like the one you eagerly fled before?

Thinking like this will give you gratitude in the best case, and equanimity in the worst.

On the job hunt, all you have to do is keep taking steps. Eventually, you will land on something that fits. All you need in the meantime is the ability to endure.

Job Hunt as Opportunity

We typically see job loss or job uncertainty as being closer to catastrophe than celebration. This is mostly true, but what good can you see in it?

A blank canvas can be as much a blessing as it is a burden. Focus on the ways in which it’s a blessing, and this perspective will make a real difference.

You now have opportunities to reset or revamp your life. Recognize the opportunity to rebuild you’ve been presented with. Learn to see it as an opportunity to become unstuck and find new footing. Unless you truly live near the margins, consider that you won’t really become homeless or truly hungry, and that the dislocation you currently feel can be made to serve you.

There is great potential in this kind of disequilibrium moment for seeing the value in what you have, in seeing what you need. You have a chance to observe and keep strong, useful traditions, while training yourself in new ways where you fall short.

You can take a long look at your preferred indifferents, as suggested by Massimo Pigliucci in a recent blog post. You can stop for a well-rounded examination of the ethical choices surrounding what you’ve chosen to do thus far in life.

As you look for new work, things will cross your path: opportunities for personal development or even reinvention, new habits, new courses of action, new people or places, new projects, and certainly fresh beginnings. Moreover, there is abundant potential for practicing your virtues, meaning you will be both living them out and actually training to do better.

Living virtuously requires consciously practicing doing so. In modern life, there are perhaps few moments as opportune as job hunting for looking closely at your virtues.

A job search brings alive the need to find tranquility in everyday life, seeming more vivid sometimes than times of ordinary employment. If you value tranquility or living with less fear, now is when it shows.

If you are interviewing for a job you’d really like, for example, do your best and then put it out of your mind as best you can (easy to say, hard to do). After there’s nothing else for you to do, leave it alone. Maybe pretend you’ve already been rejected so there can’t be any unpleasant surprises. Let go of excessive worry about things beyond your control. Job searching gives us some real skin in the game putting this core Stoic tenet into practice.

One reason so much anxiety exists regarding job loss or job switching is due to social status, or potentially losing it. A remedy for this might be to cut yourself off from things like social media, TV, or friends you know who devote considerable energy to analyzing social status. This can improve things. And if that feels harsh, consider that self-denial can be healthy for you anyway, as the Stoics say. If you’re inundated by messages that make you feel insecure, stop the flow of those messages.

As far as work itself is concerned, look to your obstacles for guidance. They frequently point the way. It may be new needed skills, formal education, relationships, professional references, awkward conversations, salary negotiations, rounds of interviews in person or online–whatever you dread doing, you will likely have to confront that very thing before you can move on. These obstacles hindering your way are telling you where where the trouble spots are and where you need to prepare.

Job searches give us a chance to practice living our values: We need to build our resilience, spend our attention carefully, and work to see ourselves in the context of a whole lifetime. There are few better guides than the Stoics for psychologically navigating times of job-related uncertainty or anxiety. They provide excellent cues for such occasions. We cannot avoid moments or even long stretches of discomfort, but we can endure them and emerge stronger.

Andrew Overby currently works in marketing and lives in Austin, Texas. His interest in Stoic thinking in recent years has been inspired by a deep desire to live better through squaring the technologies and material advantages of modern life with timeless, proven traditions.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

1 thought on “The Stoic Job Search: Rejection and Opportunity by Andrew Overby”

  1. This was a brilliant and extremely helpful article. Job loss or uncertainty is one of the most common chronic modern stressors and I totally appreciated being shown how to apply Stoic philosophy in this scenario. So much meat here for me…will take a while to process but I am hopeful I can use it. Thank you Andrew!

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