Whitewater Lessons that Jobseekers Can Learn From

May 3rd, 2010

In our child-free years of reckless abandon, my husband and I became avid white-water enthusiasts. What we lacked in finesse we made up for in tenacity, and we eventually honed our skills enough to spend most of our river time in our canoe rather than under it. But not before we spent a good deal of time up the creek without a paddle, trying to swim ourselves and our canoe back to shore.

One particular trip stands out – both for the sheer adrenalin-fed terror, and for the lessons I learned. We were paddling the Magnetawan, a river that in mid-summer is a lazy meanderer interspersed with waterfalls, but in early April is a torrent of spring runoff. Our trip guide, Tim, was an expert kayaker, and very motivational in a rah-rah you-can-do-it sort of way. We trusted him implicitly. He  had done this river many times before (albeit in a kayak, never an open canoe), and assured us that the river was totally within our capabilities. Tim was wrong. I realized this when I found myself in the bow of a 17 foot open canoe, trying to eddy out of a 6 foot standing wave. (Plot spoiler: we didn’t make it).

I thought about this trip recently when a contact on LinkedIn described his job search as a white-knuckle up-the-creek-without-a-paddle experience. I realized that some of the lessons I learned on the Magnetewan are applicable to a job search.

Lessons That I Learned When I Was Up The Creek

Choose Your Guide With Care

While solo-tripping can be exhilarating it is not for the faint of heart, so many of us will turn to experts for advice and guidance. When it comes to the right way to find a job, everybody has a strong opinion. Google “job search expert” and you will get 70,300,000 hits.  Some experts will be merely motivational, some will be novices, some will be jaded by their own failed trips, some will have advice that only works for a particular river (or industry, or discipline, or personality). Whether you elect to listen to a trusted mentor, a friend, a career counsellor, or a job search coach, choose your experts with care. Make sure that the advice they offer makes sense for you, your industry, your profession, your career stage, your personality.

Have Your Own Copy of the Map

Create a job search plan – a map – that will take you to your destination, and own it. The clearer you are in defining realistic goals for your next career move, the more useful your map will be. Whether you work alone or with a guide, become an expert on your skills, strengths, attributes, risk tolerances and weaknesses. Define what you are good at (your value proposition), so you can narrow down your map to kinds of companies and opportunities that are a good match for you.

Master the J-Stroke

However carefully you’ve researched your route, you have to get off the couch (or your computer) if you want to make the trip. Master the j-strokes needed to give your job search momentum and direction. Continuously develop your network. Get comfortable making cold calls. Follow up on leads.

Scout the Rapids Yourself

No two river trips are the same. No two job searches are the same. Experts can give you general guidelines, equip you with tools, teach you valuable skills, but you need to scout the conditions yourself, and adapt your route accordingly. What worked two years ago could be completely unproductive or even reckless today. And what was unthinkable last week may be exactly the right manoeuvre right now. You also need to be ready to make in-the-moment decisions when opportunities or obstacles suddenly surface.

Paddle Within Your Limits

Among the whitewater crowd we paddled with, it was a frequent topic of conversation: do you know your limit, have you met your limit? I’ve heard more than one paddler (and jobseeker) say “what have I got to lose” when deciding to push the limits of what they are qualified to do. In paddling the decision can be fatal.** In a job search, it’s not so dire, but it is still a mistake. You lose credibility with recruiters and hiring managers. You lose credibility with your network of contacts. Worse, you lose your focus. Your map becomes diluted, and your elevator speech begins to have addendums. You lose sight of the real value proposition you bring to the table.

The End of the Trip

Technically, our trip didn’t end with us up the creek without a paddle. I held on to my paddle (rule one of ‘how to survive’ a dump), and my husband eventually recovered his. We were able to finish the trip, although we walked a good many of the remaining rapids. We had bumps. We had bruises. We were chastened. But the Magnetewan didn’t kill us. And as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you wiser.

** Our Magnetewan trip leader once boasted that he had never met his limit, never met a rapid, or river, or river condition he wasn’t prepared to try. I should have paid attention to that before making him one of my trusted paddling experts. Eventually Tim me his limit, during a solo trip in Northern Canada. His body was never recovered.

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Meet Karen Siwak

An award-winning Certified Résumé Strategist, Karen has crafted top calibre career transition packages for thousands of clients. Her specialty is helping people identify and articulate their unique brands and value propositions, and she is passionate about empowering clients with the tools, strategies and confidence to take control of their career search. Read more...

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