If You Don’t Stand Out, Consider a Career Change

If you haven’t had a promising interview in the past six months, you should consider the possibility that you aren’t a top candidate.

In this job market, it isn’t good to be anything but a top candidate. Hiring managers who have openings are besieged with resumes, many from outstanding candidates. So if you aren’t outstanding, you aren’t going to be able to compete. Sure, exceptions exist to this rule — loads of stupid, incompetent people still have jobs – but I challenge you to name a truly exceptional job candidate in love with her career who can’t find a job within six months.

Don’t tell yourself you’re a victim of circumstances, because resumes from top candidates turn circumstances around. A friend moved to Kansas where her first choice for an employer had a hiring freeze. But she sent her resume anyway, and a director there figured out how to make her an offer even during the freeze. Another friend, a senior marketing executive for one of the largest U.S. companies, was laid off and found a better job two months later.

You can tell yourself that fools run the world and they underestimate your gifts, but who wants to work for fools? You want to work for geniuses, and if you haven’t heard from any in the past six months, they probably won’t be calling.

Coming Full Circle

So maybe you’re not the best. Don’t get upset. This is a great time to figure out where your real gifts lie and what you really love to do. I know because I also wasn’t the best.

I started my career in marketing, but I noticed that people in technology-oriented positions made more money. So I maneuvered myself into a software company, and thanks to a booming economy, found myself climbing the information-technology ladder. I spent nights reading about such topics as database capabilities in Lotus Notes. I spent my days managing teams of 20-year-olds whose IT capabilities didn’t appear to extend beyond setting up a game of Quake on the company’s network.

I felt like the girl who beat all the odds: I’d gone to graduate school for English and then ruled a fiefdom of code heads. But when the economy went sour, so did my company, and I joined the ranks of the unemployed. When I sent my resume to information-technology departments nationwide, I was offered decent jobs in obscure cities and terrible jobs in fun cities. That surprised me. I had thought of myself as a hot commodity.

So I reviewed my career and decided I probably wasn’t that great at my job. If I were, smart people at smart companies would read my resume and call me immediately. At first, I kept this realization private, because I felt useless and lost. When people said, “How’s the job hunt going?” I said, “Tough market, you know?” But long days at the local coffee shop made me realize that while I loved the salary and the excitement my career offered, I was never going to be an information-technology wiz. I had probably topped out.

Next, I tried to identify when I really had done an outstanding job. Those moments were in the marketing arena. I gave up the idea that I was a high-powered IT executive, and I focused on getting a job in marketing. I retooled my resume, downplaying the fact that I had managed 15 programmers. Instead, I highlighted my few standout moments in marketing.

I received a job offer from a very smart man who headed sales and marketing at a very smart company. I took a huge pay cut, but I knew I was on a track where I could be the best. I could see my path to the top of the marketing ladder and imagine myself getting there.

Starting over wasn’t pretty. I gave up my BMW and went into credit-card debt while learning to downsize my standard of living. But it was a small price to pay to get unstuck.

Don’t Ignore Being Stuck

The only thing worse than being stuck in your career is ignoring being stuck. So take a look at yourself. If you aren’t getting job offers, think about when you really do stand out. You might have to change your career, which is scary, but the opportunity cost of starting over is low when you don’t have a job.

Like it or not, the world caters to those who are great at what they do. Instead of engaging in a discussion about what’s fair, ask yourself, “What will make the best use of my inherent gifts?” People are usually happiest and most excited about their work when they’re using their skills and talents to the fullest.

And don’t be angry with yourself for not selecting the perfect career the first time around. Most of us choose careers while we’re in our early 20s — a time when we have little-to-no self-knowledge. Be grateful that this latest round of unemployment has allowed you to see your true ranking — not at the top of your field but able to be at the top of a different field — and then take a risk and switch.

By Penelope Trunk

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