Want a job? Stop complaining and start solving someone else’s problems
I want to help every unemployed person find rewarding work if they want it. What I have to say applies to everyone.
Understandably, many people discount what I have to say because I am a successful well-educated, debt-free, married white male who is a product of a different era. Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, women, single parents and debt-laden liberal arts graduates all want to know how I could possibly understand what they are facing.
Well, there is one thing about me that gets me pre-judged, and that makes it hard for many people to find jobs.
I am old.
How can I make more money?
I am 60 years old now. When I was 26 I asked my boss, “How can I make more money?”
He said, “Be worth more. Spend time with Bob. We pay him more. Watch what he does.”
Bob was perhaps five years older than me. He did what I did, only better and faster. He knew answers to problems I did not know existed, and he had more tools in his kitbag. In short, he was a more skilled craftsman than I was. I respected Bob.
Then I asked my boss, “How can I make more money than Bob?”
He said, “Spend time with me.”
What he did was completely different. My boss did not seem to do any work at all. He wandered around, asking people questions like, “What are you working on?” and saying things like, “Isn’t that just a special case of an inventory management system?” or “Sally worked on something like that last year; you should talk to her.” Often when people could not answer his questions, he would say, “You’ll figure it out,” and then walk away.
Previously, I’d considered him innocuous. He had taken up very little of my time, and usually everything he said seemed obvious. I figured he was just stopping by to be friendly, and that he must have a real job elsewhere doing what managers do: Getting people to do things they would not do otherwise.
But now I saw that he treated everyone the same way he treated me. When someone had a problem, he didn’t roll up his sleeves and pitch in. He got others to do the work, and he seemed to be the epitome of, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” I hated people like that. They should do their own work; not rely on connections to get ahead, or cover for their own lack of effort.
That is when I lost all respect for him.
But as I started to observe him more closely, it began to dawn on me that all the things he would say seemed obvious only after he said them. It’s a trick of the mind that as soon as I would understand a self-evident truth, I imagined I knew it all along. But an honest audit of my behavior might indicate that previously, I had had no clue. Apparently, he was dispensing wisdom, not knowledge.
He was superb at getting me to see the essence of a problem rather than its surface or details. When I needed help, he could get others to help me with enthusiasm, and when someone needed my help, I’d do so gladly because it seemed like the least I could do in return. I had been taking credit for solving problems, but I hadn’t been giving him credit for clarifying the true nature of the problems, or for getting me help so I wouldn’t have to do everything alone.
Around age 30, I became an independent computer consultant. I was pretty good technically, and unafraid of learning new things. However, I could imagine that in 10 or 20 years I might not be able to keep up with the youngsters, and sure enough, that is what happened. As I gained experience, fearless agility faded, but in its place I began spotting general principles and uncovering self-evident truths that I could express simply, and therefore remember more easily. As I met more people, and did little favors for them, it became easier to connect them with each other so they could get things done without me. In short, I was becoming more like my old boss.
The neuroscience of aging
Jim Bower, a neuroscientist, recently explained to me why this is: Our brains actually change with age. Young people are not so much fearless as incapable of realistic evaluation of risk. We need these people to fight wars and start families. Nobody in their right mind would charge a well-fortified bunker. No woman would get pregnant if she could anticipate the physical pain of childbirth, the effort in child rearing, or the heartache of eventual separation.
As we age we have more experiences to catalog and we cannot possibly keep track of all the details, so we begin to look for general patterns; rules we can use to explain the world and guide our behavior. In short, wisdom is a coping mechanism.
But, there’s nothing that guarantees we draw correct conclusions. For example, hypothesizing we are discriminated against merely because of our age can help us explain our failures. Or it could be that we see patterns where none exists, and therefore it is rational for people who want to get things done to avoid hiring people with faulty world views. Perhaps thinking we are being discriminated against is a symptom of the reason people don’t want to hire us. False wisdom can be worse than no wisdom at all because it gets in the way of doing what we are told to do by people who know what they are doing.
Being wrong is the best policy
Even scientists trained in uncovering objective truths have pet theories, and they are likely to see confirming data and ignore disconfirming evidence. I am no exception. However, I have discovered that when choosing between two alternative explanations for my failure, rather than take the time to determine which is objectively correct, it is often wiser to choose the theory that says I am most at fault. Although it feels worse, when I am at fault I have more control.
For example, if the problem is that I am being discriminated against because of my age, then I cannot fix that problem without changing the minds of billions. But if my failures are my fault, then all I have to do is change my own mind. This is one of those general rules I have come up with in my old age, even though I cannot remember the specifics of how I came by it. Maybe I read it in an article like this one.
An unwise woman with a problem
A while ago I was talking to a woman who was about my age. She had not had a job in years. She said, “I cannot get a job because of age discrimination. Nobody values wise problem solvers.”
I said, “Really? I don’t find that. Wise problem solvers are very rare; I don’t know many of them, and they all seem fully employed, regardless of how old they are.” She asked for my advice and I suggested that we role-play an interview.
Me: Are you a wise problem solver?
Me: Say something wise?
She: What do you mean?
Me: Say something that a wise person would say; the kind of thing Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, or Margaret Meade might utter.
She: (after a long pause) I cannot think of anything. But I am good at solving problems.
Me: OK. You have a problem. You have been unemployed for a few years. Why have you not solved that problem?
She started to repeat that people did not value wise problem solvers, but then stopped herself. Instead she asked me what she should do.
Do NOT make a job of getting a job
I cannot remember what I told her then, but this is what I can tell you now:
A lot of people say that when you are unemployed, you should make it your full-time job to find a job. This is really bad advice because it sets you up for a failure loop; you could have had a 30-year track record of success, and then after a year of unemployment all you can show for your last “job” is dismal failure. You will feel like a failure because, frankly, you have failed. You will project that sense of failure and people won’t hire you.
Instead, make it your full-time job to become an even wiser problem solver than you already are. Nobody can stop you from succeeding at this job except for you. Work at it at least eight hours a day. Make sure to solve other people’s problems, not your own, because nobody cares if you cleaned out your garage and finished your basement. However, they will take notice if you helped three teams launch businesses at a Startup Weekend, or got your favorite ice cream shop onto the first page of a Google search.
Hunt for problems, not for a job
The way most people go about finding work broadcasts a selfish message: “If you don’t have a job for me then I don’t care about you.”
What if you radiate a different message instead: “I love to solve other people’s problems. Do you have any, or know anyone who does? Although I’m not being paid to solve problems right now, I still must keep at it or I’ll get rusty. Therefore I’m happy to solve really juicy problems for free as long as they don’t take up too much of my time and I receive gratitude for a job well done.”
If someone asks why you would work for free, then you ask them, “I love problems as much as some people love tennis. What would you think of somebody who claims to love tennis but hasn’t played in two years because nobody paid him to do it?”
It is perfectly legal to work for free — if you have the right boss
If someone says that it is illegal for them to hire you without paying you, tell them: “You are absolutely correct; it would be a violation of the minimum wage law. That is why many supposed ‘internship’ programs are illegal, and the reason I am not asking you to hire me. However, it is perfectly legal for a self-employed person to pay themselves nothing. You will not be hiring me. Instead, I will be working for myself, and it is perfectly legal for me to give away free samples of my work. Many of the lawyers who sue employers for running abusive internship programs also do plenty of work pro-bono.”
Read “How to Gain Experience by Working for Free — And Stay Within the Law.” Understand that to call yourself self-employed, you must adopt certain attitudes toward your work, but no particular legal structure is required (such as incorporation). If you do not make any money at it then there isn’t even anything you need to put on your tax return. More than anything else, self-employment is a frame of mind having to do with what psychologists call “locus of control.” That said, consult your own advisers and therapists.
The minimum wage laws exist to protect innocents who are predisposed to turn over to others responsibility for their own lives. But once you see yourself as the “boss of you,” then the nanny state gets out of the way. Besides, what would the world be like if the law required payment for every piece of labor? You might be prohibited from raising your own children, and they would be in violation of child labor laws if they did their own laundry. As stupid as our laws are, they are not that stupid.
Jobs are where the work is
Do this full-time, and you will keep up your skills, connections, and self-esteem. I predict that before long, someone will say, “I have a problem that might not be as juicy as you want, but it needs to be done. I’ll pay you a pile of money to compensate you for not spending your time solving those other problems so you can work on mine instead.” But if you’re not doing much for anyone, nobody has to compensate you much to get you to stop what you are doing. As a manager once told me, “I don’t mind hiring the unemployed, but I will never hire someone who doesn’t work.”
I have a website born of my philosophy called NoShortageOfWork.com. Because of it, I have learned HTML, PHP, how to build websites with WordPress, improved my writing skills immensely, met tons of experts (e.g. Jim Bower), and helped many people meet each other and find work. It is even a source of comic relief. For example, a reader once told me that I must take down my site because I should be prohibited from working on it without pay. I offered to let him pay me, but he refused. I suggested he would prefer HumongousShortageOfWork.com and sent him on his way. I have decided that if someone pays me enough, I will stop doing this work, but in the meantime I will keep going just to prove a point.
Exercise your power to do the highest value work, not the first thing that comes along
Some people imagine that offering to work for free is an act of desperation, and people will not respect you for it. If you adopt this viewpoint then it will become true; beggars cannot be choosers.
On the other hand, when you offer free samples of your work, no one can make you do it, they have no right to complain if you fail, and you have the power to be selective. When you exercise that power nobody will see a beggar, but instead a powerful person being unselfish.
I met a recently minted MBA still paying off a six figure student loan who lost her first job less than a year into it in 2008. She had hardly begun learning real-world skills and soon discovered that the market priced inexperienced MBAs below zero. After six months without a nibble, she decided to do volunteer work but soon she became really depressed. With the economy in a slump, non-profits were losing donations, cutting back on services, and laying off staff and volunteers. Even a soup kitchen had a six-month backlog of applicant volunteers. She desperately wondered what it would take to jump the queue and get considered ahead of everyone else.
I said to her something like, “Why not tell them your soup ladling skills are as good as can be, so you’d like to improve your design skills by taking a crack at revamping their website. Or you could improve your sales skills by raising new funds. Or hone your persuasion skills by showing homeless clients how restaurants might gladly serve them gourmet meals in exchange for keeping their sidewalks spotless — and then finding restaurants to go along.” I even went so far as to say that, if she thought about it, she did not need their permission to do any of those things.
She asked, “How do I do that?”
I said, “You’ll figure it out,” and walked away.
This does not work for everyone — only for those who try
I can only say that my philosophy has worked for me and I cannot promise that it will do anything for you. Without a guarantee, most people say something polite and leave it at that. Others say something nasty before leaving. So be it.
But in the rare instances where people take these words to heart, the transformation can be spectacular, the process enjoyable, and the results rewarding.
In summer of 2004, I moved my family to Europe to have some fun. However, in order to make new friends and learn new things, I made it a habit of popping in on computing centers around the continent that use technology similar to my own.
In Nuremberg, I stumbled upon Kai Jaeger, who was in his early 50s at the time. He was referred by a mutual friend as superbly competent, but he had been unemployed for two years and was becoming desperate.
My wife and I took him to dinner. Every reason he gave for his unemployment sounded like an excuse to me, and I let him know it.
“The economy is terrible.” So, are you just going to wait for it to improve? “The government is incompetent.” Are you going to run for office and fix it? “I’ve only had two interviews and they both ended abruptly when they learned my age.” People are prejudiced. Do you have a plan for how you are going to change them, or are you going to take a different approach?
“I don’t have a college degree.” That hasn’t stopped you for 30 years. “Nobody cares.” There is a whole community of programmers just like you. Are you going to continue ignoring them or are you going to start caring about them and see if they care back? “There are no jobs in Germany.” You’re in the EU now so you can go where there are jobs. “My English isn’t good enough.” Sure it is; I understand you perfectly. If you don’t understand me it is not because of your language skills, it is because of how you are thinking.
My wife kept kicking me under the table. She whispered, “He just wants your sympathy.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but it isn’t what he needs.”
Don’t take my word for it
Eventually Kai changed his tune, developed a website for a local business, landed work in Copenhagen, and got involved with a community of programmers. Now he lives in England where he has become a British citizen. If anything, his only problem now is that he has too much work. Go to Stories from Germany, and scroll down to read what Kai has to tell you about how to find work.
Our age discrimination laws do not make sense to my old addled brain. It is illegal to disadvantage someone who is over 40 because of their age, but younger people get no such protection? Isn’t that discriminating on the basis of age?
You can choose to be a victim of your circumstances. If you do, so shall it be.
Or you can choose to be a wise problem solver, and if you do that, you shall become that instead.
After all, you become what you work on becoming.
Brooke’s website is brookeallen.com.
Originally published at qz.com on June 10, 2013.