Finding your way out of the unemployment wilderness

By Scott Hammond

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

This May 28, 2013 photo shows hikers walking on rocky terrain for a 3-mile trip to The Wave rock formation in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. People who make the hike are advised to bring at least a gallon of water for the desert backcountry journey that begins in southern Utah and crosses over the border into Arizona. (

Brian Witte, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.7 percent of Utahns are unemployed. Economy Track says almost 18 percent are underemployed (part-time seeking full-time work). The underemployed and the unemployed, along with their friends and their families, experience the same psychological trauma as those who have been lost in the wilderness and forced to survive.

When Victoria broke her leg in the Escalante desert of southern Utah, she was already a day overdue. Trapped at the base of an old waterfall and 40 yards from drinkable water, she was in a hole and unable to move. For hours she thought about how to get to water without risking a severed artery. Then it came to her. Instead of going forward she would go backwards. With her one good leg and her bottom, she scooted backwards, up and over the rock, collecting burnable fire fuel in her poncho as she dragged her broken leg along the desert floor. At the stream, she built a fire and buried the hot coals in the sand. The coal bed helped keep her warm and the water kept her hydrated for three more days before searchers found her.

Aaron was three weeks away from college graduation when his father told him he had been laid off. Now both of them were on the job market and neither one of them had prospects. His father had been a corporate accountant for 30 years. Aaron was graduating in business management. Between them, all they had was a common love for cars and Aaron’s part-time job in a repair shop.

But the repair shop was so poorly run it was going under. After many late nights of planning, son and father presented the owner of the repair shop an offer, bought the repair shop, revived the business and created new opportunities for themselves and others.

Unemployment or survival in Utah’s desert and mountain wilderness areas takes emotional fortitude and creative thinking. As a volunteer searcher with Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs and a professor who studies survival behavior, I have learned that basic survival skills in wilderness or workplace are not enough.

A lost or unemployed person hoping to survive is in an unanticipated situation. He or she is disoriented, and for a period of time has no way of orienting to the new environment. This often leads to panic, shame, anger and self-pity. There is a drive to draw on personal history to solve what is a completely unique problem. But what has worked in the past may not land us a job or help us survive in this new and different terrain.

In the over 100 incidents I have studied or observed, survivors think differently, see differently and act differently when faced with the unusual situation of being lost. Rather than give way to negative emotions, we can problem solve and follow these “lessons of the lost.”

Lesson 1: Survival is insufficient.

People are not motivated by small dreams. Only dreaming big produces big results. Survival is what you should do only until you can find a way to thrive. “Survival mode,” as some people call it, is a high-energy expenditure state with a limited time horizon. As you begin to thrive, there is less urgency, less stress and more perspective.

Victoria was in survival mode while she wondered what to do about getting to water. She battled worry and fear while thinking through a problem she had never encountered. Once she locked in on a solution, and made it work, she relaxed. Her immediate needs were met and so her sense of urgency shifted, and she began to think longer term.

Lesson 2: Think differently to see differently. See differently to act differently.

Lost people, and many unemployed, are facing a new and unique problem. Old solutions almost never work when you are lost. Thus it requires a new and unique solution. Experience helps, but creativity is essential. Aaron’s father had to give up his identity as a corporate accountant. He had to stop seeing as a corporate careerist and start seeing as an entrepreneur. His ability to see and act differently helped him build a wonderful opportunity with his son.