SANTA CLARA, Calif. - This spring 16 million college graduates will face a job market with nearly 10 percent unemployment and more than 7 million people out of work. Finding a job, any job, will be challenging. Yet, paradoxically, this challenge offers a hidden opportunity to pursue a meaningful life, not merely a livelihood.
In stronger economic times, many graduates made hasty career decisions, picking the high-paying or prestigious job offered by recruiters at college job fairs without reflecting on their own strengths and values.
By taking that first job, they would jump onto a career track, only to wake up years later realizing they'd been living somebody else's life.
Today's challenging job market gives graduates time: time to focus on their strengths, ask important questions, and anchor their work to their deepest values. Used wisely, this time can enrich their futures with discernment practices often ignored during times of job abundance.
Of course, we must all find work to support ourselves, but since work occupies nearly half our waking hours, it should mean more than a paycheck. Research shows that people who find meaning in their work are happier and healthier, able to see new possibilities and make it through difficult times. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl even found that a sense of meaning gave people the strength to survive in a Nazi concentration camp while others lost hope and died.
Finding meaningful work in these turbulent times takes strategic planning. By balancing purpose with practicality, graduates can make this time work for them. I recommend three key strategies.
One, don't panic. Stress and anxiety only sabotage us.
Neuroscientists have learned that fear shuts down our capacity for long-range planning, impulse control, creativity, and problem-solving - skills needed to meet the current challenge. Reduce stress by reflecting on your values, which a recent UCLA study found lowers cortisol levels and strengthens our immune systems. Then begin a daily stress management practice: exercise, meditate, stay connected with friends.
Two, build positive momentum by discovering your strengths. Recent Gallup studies have found that most people dwell on their weaknesses, but when we focus on our strengths, we are happier, healthier, and more successful. Ask "What am I good at? What do I love to do?" Reflect on what brings you joy, take a personal inventory at the college career center, or find your "signature strengths" with the VIA-IS survey onwww.authentichappiness.org.
Three, make a plan. Short term: get a temporary job to pay the bills through the college career center but don't give up on your dreams. Chart a direction that combines your strengths and values and set a specific "stretch" goal you could reach in six months. Map out three steps to your goal - you might join a professional organization, do volunteer work, get advice from alumni, find an internship, or arrange an information interview in your field.
Then think strategically: come up with one possible roadblock and back-up plan for each step - what you'll do if that step doesn't work out. Maintain your motivation: see yourself achieving your goal, remember a time when you overcame a challenge, and tell yourself, "I can do this, too."
Finally, keep your eyes and ears open. Learn from the process and build on your plan. If something doesn't work out, try something else - but keep moving forward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."
Diane Dreher is a professor of English at Santa Clara University and the author of "Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life's True Calling" and "The Taos of Inner Peace."