Our Take: Does Positive Thinking Work? Or, Listening to Stallone's Dog

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One of the toughest challenges in a job search is staying confident in the face of repeated rejections. A prolonged transition inflicts exponential decay on one's professional standing and - for some - personal finances. So it's natural to find "positive thinking" ideology cropping up in the world of job-search and career coaching.

One such story that's gained wide currency in the job-search context and elsewhere purports to trace the success of the actor Sylvester Stallone. Fanatically pursuing a dream of making and acting in movies, Stallone reportedly endured far worse than the usual tedium of bartending or low-level office work while waiting for that first audition or screenplay to strike gold. At his low point, he pawned his soon-to-be-ex-wife's jewelry and was forced to sell his only remaining relationship - his beloved dog - for $25 to buy food. After writing the script for Rocky, although still dead-broke he turned down offers for $125,000 and higher because the script's would-be buyers refused to let him star in "his" film. He finally achieved his wish through a compromise: The buyers agreed to let him play the lead, but reduced his cash payment to $35,000 and a share of the profits.

The rest is history, although the preceding might not be. The motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins says he got the entire narrative one-on-one from Stallone. To my knowledge, the actor has never publicly confirmed Robbins' account. But I don't care if it's true or false - I'm interested in it only as parable.

What does the tale of the starving actor and his dog teach about job hunting? Let's focus on two things it does not teach.

Faulty Conclusion No. 1: The Numbers Game

Noting that Stallone persevered through literally thousands of rejections, one career expert urges job seekers to apply to "every possible job opening" - even openings you know you're unqualified for. What do you think that expert does? He's the CEO of a job board. That makes his advice understandable: He's simply talking his own book.

In reality, searching for a job is almost never a numbers game. Applying to 10,000 openings or companies you're a poor fit for yields no greater probability of landing an interview than if you'd applied to just 10 such slots. It's like how Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

What about sending an identical pitch to thousands of companies you haven't researched? That may bring results for individuals with highly general backgrounds and skill sets - CFO, HR director, certain IT functions. For most of us, though, the one-size-fits-all approach amounts to pouring effort down a bottomless pit.

It doesn't even follow Stallone's example. Although he never swerved from his central goal of acting, he modified his strategy along the way, such as by taking up screenwriting. "Persistence is good, but persistent adaptation is better," the Mergers & Inquisitions blog observes in its cogent meditation on the Rocky parable. "If something isn't working in your recruiting efforts, you need to figure out why and then change it...make sure that you're not using ineffective strategies ad infinitum."

Faulty Conclusion No. 2: Devotion Is Everything

By itself, unshakable determination can't guarantee success. In most cases, you must also have something of substance - a strong product or service, or a talent or skill that confers a competitive advantage. Had Rocky been a mediocre movie concept or had Stallone been a mediocre performer, neither would have succeeded to the degree they did. (Yes, I know I'm making a circular argument here.)

Underdog success stories like Rocky (or the recent Slumdog Millionaire) appeal to something deep in our individual and collective psyche. As blueprints for career management, however, they overlook what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "the evidence of the cemetery." That's an elegant way to state a concept widely used in finance, especially portfolio management: survivor bias. It refers to all the instances that lead to the opposite outcome, which don't get noticed or recorded ("buried") and are therefore routinely omitted from the picture presented by proponents.

How many stories do speechwriters or book authors write up about people who spent years or decades persevering and ultimately failed anyway? Those individuals probably outnumber the Henry Fords and Winston Churchills and Sylvester Stallones by at least 100 to 1. At least.

Positive thinking can add value by banishing negative thinking. But in planning and executing a job search, the best thinking melds honest introspection with market research and analysis plus flexibility to adapt in response to real-world feedback. Rather than the power of perseverance, I'd put my faith in staying cool-headed and objective, and elevating "work smart" over "work hard."

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