Marcus Buckingham
Personal strength expert Marcus Buckingham answers questions on finding work during tough economic times. Ask Marcus your career question
Q: I am a stay-at-home mom. My son is graduating and I am now trying to get back into the work force. Money is limited so school is out of the question right now. I was thinking maybe just get any job for now and then get bills caught up and try to go back to school. Finding anything other then a minimum wage job around here with my qualifications will be hard to do. It is so frustrating now days to find any job. What steps should I take for my future? I am now single so it's all up to me.

—Kelly, age 46 

A: Kelly, I think your instincts are correct and you shouldn't feel bad about taking a job to make ends meet. You have to plug the hole in the boat before you can raise the sails. Allow yourself to see the job you get as a stepping stone, not a stopping point. Take it on knowing that you are using it as a platform from which to build the bridge to your true career. You write that "it's all up to me." I admire your self-reliance, and you have raised your son to the point of graduation, so you are clearly a resourceful person. But even though it is ultimately up to you to create the life you want, that doesn't mean that you have to do it alone. Never be ashamed or reluctant to tap into your network of friends for help. Be willing to learn from the experience of other people who have gone through the same thing you have. If you know other single moms who have found success getting back into the workforce, ask them their secrets.

Also, although you say that school is out of the question because money is limited, don't let your assumptions on that point prevent you from following your passion if more education is what it takes to create the life you want to have. Every college has needs-based scholarships and financial assistance programs to help people in exactly your situation, and their administrative staff will be very happy to answer any questions you have about what financial assistance is available and how to apply for it.
Pursuing a New Career in Your 50s

Q: At the age of 58, I have been downsized after working in banking for 19.5 years as a manager, six years as a training manager and three and a half as a human resources manager. I am now trying to find what I want/can do with my background. I am now at a loss for myself, trying to find my passion/my gift. I took the test twice, and each time it said I was a Teacher. I would like to have a job that I look forward to each day and at the end of the day I feel good about myself. 

At this age, I thought I would have a successful career and feel good about myself. I have to wonder what is it I didn't do. If you can provide me with direction of how to find and use my gift, I would greatly appreciate it.


A: Emma, the good news is that few of us pick an entirely unsuitable path for our strengths, and from the details you give, it seems that you're no exception. Your Strong Life Test has revealed that your lead role is that of a Teacher, and you describe almost 30 years of managing—which, by definition, means mentoring others. It seems that you may be feeling a bit lost right now (understandably, after the blow of being downsized), but one of the wonderful qualities of most Teachers is that they never give up on anybody and believe that each person is capable of learning and growing. Take this same generous attitude that you offer to others and apply it to yourself. 

One piece of advice that I give to Teachers is to make the time to continue your own learning. You have the opportunity to do this now, in two important ways:

1. Gain new skills and knowledge. You seem concerned, as so many experienced career women are, that the skills you've already built won't be enough for your future. First, know that you have wisdom, experience and strengths that younger applicants can only dream of. Practice framing your experience as an advantage. But, beyond that, take the opportunity to add to your skills and knowledge by taking courses—any courses that interest you. Learning new things will invigorate the Teacher in you and will also help you to address any concern you think a potential employer may have that you're not willing to adapt and keep up-to-date. 

2. Learn about yourself. You're feeling a loss of direction, but the clues to which path you should follow lie in paying attention to your own strong-moments. Reflect on your experiences over the years and consider which activities left you feeling most rewarded and invigorated. Those feelings are signs of the types of things you should be looking to do in your future career.
 Q:Dear Marcus, Where do I start? I'm 28 and I have hit a wall. Like a million other people in this economy, I don't know what to do with my career. I lost a good job in 2008, which I am not ashamed of. I took a job at a local behavior disorder school to make ends meet, since I'm not afraid to work and believe you have to keep moving forward. I have my Bachelors in Computer Science/Graphic Design, but I can't find any relevant jobs. If I have to go back to school I don't even know what to go back for. I know I don't want a job where I sit on my butt all day. I can't go back to that. But with debt from my school loans, I'm kind of scared to go back. I need a career. I was on a plane ride from Denver just after Thanksgiving, sitting next to an older lady and she said you have to find your passion. And I've known that, I just get need to get there. I would love to work from my home. I have done graphic design on the side for years and I have tried to go further with it but nothing worked. I feel that I'm not a happy person most of the time because of that. My job right now is mentally draining and I'm very blessed I have a job and good work ethic, but I'm burned out. 

Lauren, age 28

A: Lauren, your confusion about where to turn is palpable. You seem more certain about what you don't want to do—sit at a desk all day, go back to school, stay at your current job longer than necessary—than about what you love to do. Reading more closely, though, I wonder if the answer to finding your passion isn't right in front of you. You describe your previous job (I'm assuming it was related to your degree) as a "good job." You don’t know what else you would study if you went back to school. You have pursued work in your field by doing graphic design on the side. Is it possible that the reason you can’t find your passion is that you already have found your passion? The sure way to find out if that’s true is to examine how you felt about what you studied in college, and the work you did before losing your job. Did you often lose yourself in your work? Spend more time than you might have needed to on a project, to take it to that next level of perfection, just for your own satisfaction? If you can recall a lot of such moments, then what you have already done is the clue to what you should do in the future.

Without a doubt, it can be discouraging to have to take a job you don’t love in order to make ends meet, but don't let temporary economic realities distract you from your truth. If, on the other hand, my inference is wrong and you don't really feel any connection to what you did in the past, then you have to consider other clues to find your strengths. Were there subjects in college or even earlier that intrigued you but didn't seem practical? What tasks or hobbies make you most focused and absorbed in what you're doing? Pay attention to the little details of your week, both at work and at home, and try to notice even the smallest activity that intrigues, motivates or inspires you. Those activities are what you need to build on to find what you will love to do.
Unemployed and Uncertain

How can we live our strongest life while unemployed? I went to college earned a bachelor's degree in education, then returned to get a law degree. I graduated with honors and have been unemployed for over a year and a half. It's my fault; I quit my job and moved to another state all in the name of love. When that fell through, I was off to find employment and return to my life...then this recession hit. I can't get a job andI have $80,000 in defaulted student loans. I'm embarrassed and ashamed; I cry every day. I recently met someone wonderful and I can't be happy because I feel like a loser. I'm 37 and I've worked since I was 16. My dad stressed education and independence, and today it feels like I have neither.

Shannon, age 37

A: Let's state this in no uncertain terms: You are not a loser. You say it feels like you have neither your education nor your independence, but in this case, you're better advised to listen to your dad than to your feelings. You do have your education and independence, and nobody can take them away from you. You've had some setbacks, and they can seem permanent, but I promise you that they're not.

Now is the time to rally around your certainties. You seem certain about your chosen career path, and you have already worked to make it a reality. Don't be discouraged. Keep moving. Keep looking for situations that play to your strengths and qualifications. Consider volunteering at nonprofits to build your skills and experience and to renew your sense of accomplishment. Finding people who you can help is often the best way to help yourself. Focus on the strong-moments that are possible in your life right now and celebrate them—not by simply patting yourself on the back or clapping and cheering, but by giving them your full attention. Find ways to build on them. It's not pleasant to find yourself on the outside looking in during a down economy, but times like these also throw our strengths into strong relief. If you feel at your lowest but can still find those moments or activities that keep you going, make you feel a sense of accomplishment and give you energy, you will know that those strong-moments will serve you through your entire life.

A final word about job searches: Emphasize your strengths on your résumé, in your cover letters and in your interviews. It may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people simply list everything they've ever done. Convey your passion and link your strengths to measurable results. Employers and interviewers love concrete data.

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