Use Negativity to Your Advantage in Your Job Search


December 27, 2013. My birthday was supposed to be a perfect night, and I planned everything to make sure that was the case: dinner at my favorite restaurant with my closest friends, drinks and dancing to ‘80s music afterwards, and a hotel room in the city to top it all off.

But when I look back on that evening, the first thing that comes to mind is not the amazing group of friends who celebrated it with me, our incredibly tasty meal of sweet potato quesadillas and spicy Mexican chocolate cake (with coconut ice cream, thank you very much), or even the mariachi band that serenaded me with a particularly festive rendition of the Happy Birthday song. Nope, the main thing that stands out in my mind is a toilet.

The hotel room that I had carefully selected and reserved for the night also happened to come with a defective toilet (that was definitely NOT advertised on the website), so the clearest image I have of that night is of me frantically calling reception and trying to get someone from maintenance to come to my room IMMEDIATELY to stop the gushing fountain of water that was spewing out of the commode at a dangerous pace.

Why is that the one thing I’m focused on?! All the fun and happy memories from that evening have started to fade with time, and the one I can’t seem to shake is the worst part of the evening, the one memory I’d like to forget the most.

It turns out that this experience (focusing on the negative in general—not the toilet part specifically) is so common that scientists have a term for it: “negativity bias.” It basically means that negative experiences are more potent than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and for longer than positive experiences. And we’ll focus on them and play them over and over in our minds, letting the happy memories wither and fade away.

It’s tempting to get depressed about this fact (it IS human nature, after all). But you can still use negativity to your advantage, especially when it comes to your job search and figuring out a career path.

Ever feel at a loss when someone asked you, “What do you want to do with your life?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you thought there was no way that you could possibly answer that type of question, you’re not alone.

But what if we used negativity bias to our advantage here? If I rephrase the question as, “What do you NOT want to do with your life?” it becomes a whole lot easier to answer.

Take a moment to think about it. Right off the bat, you can probably come up with a list of about five jobs that you KNOW you would never want. And it might feel like this is not a useful exercise, but by spending some time eliminating and ruling things out, you’re actually getting closer to identifying what you DO care about.

Here are a few questions to help you through this process.

What are some things that you can rule out immediately because of your personality, past experiences, or factors outside of your control?

  • I KNOW that I couldn’t handle the intense pressure of being a pilot or surgeon
  • I have zero interest in learning about tax accountancy
  • As much as I might wish for it to be so, I will never become the King of Norway

What things/types of tasks do you feel most resistant to or procrastinate the most?

  • Stephen Ma found himself slacking off in a major way at his internship and ended up getting fired. This helped him learn what really mattered to him.
  • Getting fired from her office manager job was a wake-up call for Marie Hernandez, who used this experience to launch her “50 Jobs Project.”

What things leave you feeling slightly unsatisfied (but also excited or interested to learn more)? This can be a sign that you’re getting warmer.

  • Roberta Pereira loved theater but wasn’t totally fulfilled by acting or directing. She knew there was something more and finally discovered that with producing.
  • Kellen McKillop knew that she loved reading and writing, but struggled with identifying her “passion.” It turns out part of the problem was just with the word “passion” itself.

As you go through this activity, remember not to be too quick to dismiss things. You might be surprised by the things that you enjoy. There’s a difference between thinking that you won’t like something because it’s unfamiliar and knowing that you won’t like something because of an actual experience you’ve had. Want to see what this looks like in a real-life situation? Candice Naranjo experienced this when she was asked to fill in for others at work and discovered that she actually loved researching and writing for the web more than anything else.

The more professional experience you get under your belt, the easier it will be to rule things out and refine your vision of what you’d like to be doing. Some other techniques that might help you include going on informational interviews, job shadowing, and volunteering or doing internships.

I’d like to end with this quote from Amy Poehler (from her book Yes Please), which is just so perfect: “I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they ‘want to do’ and start asking them what they don’t want to do. Instead of asking students to ‘declare their major’ we should ask students to ‘list what they will do anything to avoid.’ It just makes a lot more sense.”

Homework time! Don’t forget to check out your personalized Explore feed on AfterCollege. This will give you the opportunity to rule out plenty of things (it’s so much fun to click on the frowny face), and hopefully give you a few ideas of jobs that you’d at least like to learn more about.


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