Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Twice a month, he’ll answer reader questions about life, love and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
I lost my job as a host in a restaurant when the shutdowns started in March. Two weeks ago, the owner of the restaurant sent an email telling us the restaurant is closed for good and won’t reopen again even once the restrictions are lifted.
I know I need to look for another job, but I haven’t yet because there really isn’t much point. I live in New York City, and the restaurants are mostly closed. The ones that eventually open for indoor seating will hire their own staff back.
I’m 23 and hosting is the only work experience I have, so no one will want to hire me to do anything else. I have only an associate’s degree from a community college and no other job skills, so I’m totally screwed and I’m really starting to panic.
I know I should try to figure something out, but I don’t even know where to start. I feel like there is zero hope for people like me to be able to get a job.
Should I just leave now and go back to live with my dad in the Midwest, even though it will break my heart to leave and make me feel like a total failure? I want to stay but how can I keep trying to make it work here when it’s basically hopeless?
Sad and unemployed
[Editor’s note: This letter was lightly edited for clarity and length.]
Dear Sad and unemployed,
In the US alone, more than 40 million people have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment since shutdowns started in March — and the picture is no better in many other countries. And your sector — leisure and hospitality — was hit hardest in the US with almost 50 percent of jobs there disappearing in April alone.
During my years in private practice, I’ve worked with dozens of patients who lost their jobs, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis. The biggest psychological barrier my patients had to overcome was that losing their jobs and being unemployed impacted their mood and mindset in conscious and unconscious ways, affecting both how they looked for work and what their chances of success were.
That’s why it’s important to get a handle on the emotional and psychological factors that could be hindering your efforts so you can understand and correct them.
So I want to tell you about an experiment that was done more than four decades ago but its findings still remain very relevant. College students who were given a set of unsolvable problems, followed by an anagram test (anagrams are words in which the letters are scrambled), performed significantly worse than a control group who were not given unsolvable problems first.
The question is: Why did failing at one task impair their performance on a different one?
The researchers concluded that struggling with unsolvable problems made the students question their abilities and induced feelings of helplessness that sabotaged their ability to succeed at the anagram test. In other words, their initial failure convinced them they wouldn’t do well and that belief caused them to perform way below their capacity.
See where I’m going?
Much like those study participants, you’re so convinced your efforts to find another job won’t succeed that you feel helpless and paralyzed as a result — and I have to believe this must be harming your efforts to find work.
In fact, there were no fewer than six examples of such feelings in your letter (“there really isn’t much point…no one will want to hire me to do anything else…I’m totally screwed…I don’t even know where to start…I feel like there is zero hope for people like me……it’s basically hopeless.”).
Is it natural to feel demoralized and pessimistic in your situation? Of course! But if you want your job search to be successful, you have to address your negative feelings so they don’t sabotage your efforts.
The key to overcoming feelings of helplessness and pessimism is to regain a sense of control — because feeling in control is the direct opposite of feeling helpless. And the best way to regain control is to have a plan, preferably one with several back-ups.
Specifically, you need a short-term plan for getting a job now — so you can afford to stay in New York City and do things like eat and sleep under a roof. You also need a long-term plan that will help you identify potential job or career opportunities in a post-COVID economy.
Let’s start with your short-term plan:
1. List your skill sets.
Being a restaurant host typically requires people skills, communications skills and an outgoing personality, as well as the ability to multi-task and problem solve. Start with those, and add any other abilities you may have.
Listing all of your skill sets will remind you of what you have to offer an employer and thereby boost your confidence. It will also help you identify potential roles to which you might be suited, so update your resume and LinkedIn profile accordingly.
2. Make a list of jobs that call for similar skill sets.
For example, customer service, personal assistant, and sales come to mind. If you need help generating ideas, search for specific terms (e.g., communication skills) on job listing sites and write down what kinds of roles/positions have them as requirements. That should give you a varied list of jobs to target.
3. List all of the other qualities and attributes you have that make you a desirable employee.
For example, employers tend to like people who are responsible, reliable and loyal, and who have a strong work-ethic. Compiling this list will not only boost your self-esteem and confidence, but it will also provide you with attributes that you can sprinkle throughout your cover letter.
Keep in mind that employers are also partial to truthfulness, so if you emphasize being punctual but show up late to your interview, it will likely be a short one.
4. Search through job listings every morning using multiple lists and websites.
Use the emotional boost you get from taking these steps to apply to as many jobs as you can for which you’re qualified. Treat each one as if it were the only job out there — really go for it.
Now that you have a clear plan you should feel a greater sense of control and reduced feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and I hope you’ll be able to find a job and stay in New York City.
However, you also need to consider the potential long-term impact of coronavirus on various industries. For many people, the Great Pause may also be a Great Detour. Our world will be different going forward in many ways. Therefore, for you and many others, this might be an opportunity to …
5. Take a step back and reset.
You’re only 23, and the vast majority of your work life is still ahead of you. Right now you’re focused on getting another job that pays the bills and allows you to continue the life you built in NYC.
However, this moment also presents an opportunity for you to consider the bigger picture. Do you enjoy restaurant work? Do you see yourself having a longer career in the restaurant industry, or is hosting a job you fell into?
Remember: The reason your employment options and compensation are currently limited is because you’re considered unskilled labor in the job world. To improve your prospects, you could learn or develop a skill, preferably one that is likely to be in demand going forward.
That might require your going back to college or you could get training in web design, pharmacy tech, plumbing, the list goes on. Ideally, try to find a career with a ladder to climb that has more than one rung on it. Hosting — given the state of the restaurant industry for the near future — does not.
Losing your job is a big psychological blow that leaves emotional wounds, bruised self-esteem and a loss of confidence. Addressing those wounds will help restore the very initiative, optimism and hope that got you to New York City in the first place. You already made it there, Sad. You can make it anywhere. You just need to get back to feeling your best self.
Please send your questions to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
Watch his TED Talk about emotional first aid here: