There is one good reason why I never join the January 1st Vancouver English Bay Polar Bear Club swim: I am afraid that the shock to my heart would send me into “Kodiak arrest” . Still, merely by observing the swim from the dry shore, I’ve learned and confirmed useful lessons about job hunting.

As I interviewed a number of PBC swimmers on their 2012 swim, including the first-timer “Ocean Pearls” swim team (in the “after” photo below), my gut-feeling that there were implications and lessons for job hunters plunging into the New Year job-market was soon validated.

What was instructive wasn’t so much what the dozen or so had to say about the reasons that motivated their daredevil dead-of-winter adventure, which were mostly a predictable mix of bravado, bragging rights, curiosity, carpe diem zest, fear facing, and tag-along conformity and compliance. No, instead, it was the underlying psycho-physiology (“psycho” being short for “psychological”, not “psychotic”).

Applying Swimmer Psycho-Physiology to Job Hunting

Every swimmer I spoke with reported pretty much the same psychological and physiological responses to the plunge into the frigid Pacific Ocean—responses that seem to have counterparts and contrasts in the plunge into a job market that is currently anything but hot, if not actually frozen.

Look at the lead photo again and imagine the Polar Bear Club swimmers are at a job fair, individually wading and waiting for a sought-for job opportunity in the midst of the mad collective scramble for one.  Then compare the aftereffects of the swim and observations of the swimmers about the pleasure and pain of their experience with those of job hunters taking the plunge into the job market.

To set the stage for this comparison, first consider the immediate swim aftereffects and swimmer observations. When I asked them which felt better—the thrill of jumping in or the relief in jumping out, to my surprise, all said the thrill of jumping in.

The Thrill of Jumping In vs. the Relief of Jumping Out

Apparently, despite or because of my own single swim in an icy sea—the Sea of Japan on one December 23rd, I had misinterpreted their experience, since I expected them to say that getting out was better than getting in. This was on crude analogy with the cessation and relief of pain, in general, being more pleasurable than its commencement, which in job-seeker terms translates into the cessation of the pain of unemployment being more pleasurable than the start of job hunting.

Their take on their own experience was the complete opposite of what I had expected. One told me that the worst chill for him set in the moment he stepped out of the water and that it was worse than the initial shock; another said, when asked how she felt upon stepping out of the sea, “numb”—suggesting another subtle and possible psycho-physiological response variable: physiological lag—with perceptible relief lagging behind the behavior that will (later) trigger it. That’s like being warmed by a hot coffee much later than drinking it, or feeling relieved to get a job only well after being hired.

'OCEAN PEARLS' POLAR BEARS/Photo: Michael Moffa

Polar Bear Lessons for Job Hunters

Among the main lessons extracted from these considerations and conversations with PBC swimmers and of use to job hunters are these:

Know and respect the risks of letting yourself freeze (too long). Even though staying put too long and literally freezing seems obviously insane to PBC swimmers, it metaphorically seems just fine to some job hunters.

Left out in the cold job market and unable to relieve the pain of being unemployed, some will give up and behaviorally freeze, like hypothermic deer in iced highway headlights (perhaps staying put at home, by moving back in with their parents), rather than continue the job search.

Ironically, frozen out of the job market, they choose to freeze all efforts and take the risk of ensuring they will continue to be frozen out. For job hunters and Polar Bear Club swimmers alike, doing it right requires knowing when you’ve stayed put too long in freeze mode.

Allow that (as suggested above) the sensation of relief (in finding a job or being out of the water) may lag behind relief-seeking behavior (looking for a job or getting out of the water). Most of the swimmers at the Polar Bear plunge knew that, to get warm, they’d have to make a mad dash through choppy water and high winds to shore and, shivering, wait to warm up again. This is an instance in which it is understood that the sensation of relief perceptibly and predictably lags behind the behavior that creates it.

This should be obvious. Yet some job hunters think that relief behavior and relief sensations should always be simultaneous, as they usually are when one scratches an itch. Not merely impatient or immediate gratification-oriented, some misinterpret the time lag between the relief-seeking behavior and the relief sensation as relief  denied, rather than as relief merely delayed, e.g., when an invitation to a job interview is not immediate.

A classic example is the job seeker who, after waiting a few days for a company response to his relief-seeking application submission, gets fed up and aggressive, and unfortunately communicates his irritation in what he rationalized as just a routine follow-up phone call about whether his resume was received.

The corresponding scenario for a PBC swimmer who behaved like that would be that she’d rush from the sea to the shore, throw a horrible tantrum because her relief, viz., warming up, was not immediate and maybe get thrown back into the sea by her friends for being such a jerk.

On the other hand, were the job seeker to think like the average PBC swimmer, he just might allow for the possibility that his application is merely making its way through the company’s horizontal and vertical hoops, rather than into the trash, and give it the time required for the company to “warm up” to the idea.

Recognize that the price of ultimate relief of pain (e.g., the pain of unemployment or a freezing swim) can, in the short term, be additional or worse pain. That’s a fact of life obvious to Polar Bear Club swimmers who become even colder during that bone-chilling wind-whipped mad dash back to their robes and equally obvious to anybody who needs a root canal. It is clear that sometimes things not only will, but may also have to, get worse before they get better.

If all job hunters understood what the PBC swimmers know, they would not automatically panic when hit with what seems like a worsening of their situation or a setback. Instead, they would either anticipate, prepare for or simply allow for the extra pain. Given the extra time job seekers will have to cope, as compared to a PBC swimmer dashing back to a blanket, they can reflectively explore the circumstances for a hidden opportunity in their apparent crisis or simply be patient while awaiting relief.

Painful contrasts with “normal” (prior employment or body temperatures) can be useful, positively reinforced, reinforcing and satisfying, Some of the swimmers I spoke with enjoyed the icy plunge as a contrast to the pain-free routines of their daily lives—a contrast striking and satisfying enough to offset the penetrating cold of the sea and wind, not unlike what some see as the pain-offsetting rewards of being tattooed, as were many of the swim participants, whose motivation to join the swim may have been similar to their motivation to get their tattoos, e.g., a painful rite of passage into elite (albeit abnormal) exceptionality.

Most unemployed job hunters, however, above all, crave normal—or what used to be their personal normal, viz., the routine comforts of daily, safe and secure employed routine. Unlike the PBC swimmers, the average job seeker will normally see nothing heroic, exciting, otherwise rewarding or memorable in a painful aberration from the employed norm.

Of course, a few minutes of abnormal body temperatures are much easier to bear than months of abnormal unemployment. Moreover, in contrast to unemployment scenarios, there are clearly identifiable, anticipated and predictable rewards in the deviations from normalcy that define PBC swims. Only a dummy would fail to grasp that long-term abnormality is harder to cope with than momentary, other things being equal.

However, even among the chronically unemployed or underemployed, the abnormalities of joblessness can provide satisfactions that might as well be appreciated and enjoyed like a freezing swim, as long as they have to last.

For example, a close personal friend of mine used a prolonged period of forced unemployment (in the always-chancy movie industry) spanning many months in several years to home-school his then young son, who, as a result and over the years, has become an academic standout.

Ironically and instructively, the challenge confronting his wife, as the main breadwinner, was more than met as she advanced to the pinnacle of her own executive career under the abnormal financial pressures they faced together.

Half frozen out of work, this family extracted satisfactions and advanced themselves in ways that constituted compensation for the financially punishing pain, as the PBC swimmers always do in taking their icy plunge.

The anticipation of (job hunting or an icy swim’s) pain is sometimes worse than the pain itself.  The vast majority of the PBC swimmers I spoke with, including the first-timer Ocean Pearls trio, said the chill wasn’t as bad as they nervously feared it was going to be.

Just as this nice surprise is unlikely to have been experienced by all of the swim participants, it is unlikely that everyone who is unemployed will be comparably surprised and feel that the actual pain of becoming or remaining unemployed has turned out to be less severe than they feared it would be.

The key to being pleasantly surprised during and by unemployment is not financial and other preparation, since being prepared will reduce anticipatory anxiety and align it with the eventual lower level of unpleasantness. This means there will be no anticipation-actualization gap.

Rather, the main ways to be so pleasantly surprised by unemployment involve undesirable personal negatives, such as over-estimating the probable negative personal consequences of being unemployed, or simply being excessively paranoid and anxious.

Unlike the pleasant surprise of a surprise birthday party, this kind of employment-related pleasant surprise not only involves preparation on the part of the one who is surprised, but also preparation of an unhelpful sort—namely, psychologically imagining, anticipating and over-preparing for much worse than eventually happens.

So, if you don’t want to be pleasantly surprised in the Polar Bear swim or in the job market, be well-prepared and well-informed.

A Difference to Note between PBC Swims and Job Hunting

As the foregoing shows, there is much to be learned from analogies with and analysis of the Polar Bear Club swim, and useful lessons to be applied to job hunting. At the same time, there is much of value to be gleaned from noting the notable differences as well. Perhaps chief among these is a huge difference in motivation that distinguishes PBC swimmers and job hunters.

The swimmers, unlike the job hunters, are looking for something purely seasonal, and, in general, to get out as fast as they get in.



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