Finding your way out of the unemployment wilderness

By Scott Hammond

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 10:07 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.

Lesson 3: See how others see you.

Seeking feedback from your social network is essential but often difficult. Lost and unemployed people are often full of shame and fear. Feelings are raw. Meeting others is difficult as feeling of deprivation makes it difficult to be around others who have what you do not. But research shows that second-level networks are the source of more than 70 percent of job opportunities. That means that it is unlikely that your father-in-law will get you a job, but someone your father-in-law knows likely will. The unemployed need to stay socially active and network. It takes energy, but it is the best way to get results.

Lesson 4: You are never lost alone.

It never ceases to amaze me how when there is a remote wilderness search, the search team grows by the hour. Strangers come to help. Most are unpaid but highly trained volunteers. It is also true for the unemployed. Almost every church has a program to help people hone job search skills and make connections. Most colleges have formal and informal alumni networks. There are many government programs. But the most important thing is to stay close to family who often provide the essential emotional and spiritual support for this difficult time.

Lesson 5: Movement creates opportunity.

A survivor is constantly trying to improve his or her situation. Victoria knew she needed to be near water and did what it took to get there. One man unemployed for eight months finally decided to volunteer at the local homeless shelter in order to stay busy. After three weeks he met a donor who eventually offered him a career job significantly better than the job he lost.

Lesson 6: Some small things matter, some big things do not.

Victoria had learned how to make a “one match fire” and she preserved each match carefully, not knowing how long she would be lost. Similarly when there is no income coming into the home, it is important to know how to conserve, how to stretch savings and unemployment, how to limit expenditures. One unemployed woman said, “We have learned to make nice meals for the family for about the same price I spent on a large cup of coffee.”

Lesson 7: Fear itself can kill you.

Fear is a brick of toxic waste that can have fatal consequences. Most lost or unemployed report having times when they cried without restraint. But then they realize that the emotion of fear is drawing down their energy and blinding their vision. Fear unrestrained can draw down reserves and greatly reduce chances for survival.

But fear has another cost for the unemployed. So many who have been unemployed for a long period are poisoned by their own story of victimhood, of fear. They cannot leave it behind when they begin interviewing. You can see it on their faces and hear it in their sometimes-cynical language. Like the toxic waste, it poisons opportunity and rescue.

Lesson 8: No one is saved without hope.

Every lost person I have interviewed, and everyone I have studied reported a time during his or her ordeal of deep despair. But they also reported developing a vision of the ideal future and a perspective on life. Priorities are shifted. Gratitude is often deeper. And joy is no longer postposed until later. The vision of the ideal is that it motivates people to overcome the pain of a broken leg, to get to water, to build shelter and to wait patiently until searchers come, and to write and rewrite the resume, endure the questions and finally get the interview and the job.

Lesson 9: When you are found, you are forever changed.

Wilderness survivors envision the “ideal home” and unemployed the “ideal job” to motive themselves through the difficulty. Homes and jobs are never ideal. When we come back into the home after being lost, or back into the workplace after unemployment, we are changed. For some they are fearful, stressed and insecure. But for others, they are hopeful with a new resilience and a generous perspective. “I know now that I can survive anything,” Victoria told me after her four-day ordeal. “Well not anything,” she corrected herself. “But a lot more than I thought I could.”

Most of the people who have survived the trauma of prolonged unemployment or wilderness survival have said that while they would not want to go through it again, nor would they wish their experience on anyone, they would also not trade the experience for anything.

Why? Because we crave confidence and strength. We grow from the confidence and strength that comes from facing the unknown with the untested solution, then adapting and adopting until we get it right. So wilderness survival and unemployment is rarely about brawn. It is always about problem solving, creativity and a little luck.

Scott C. Hammond is a writer, consultant and teacher in the Jon Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. He researches lost person behavior and innovative solutions in business and families. He can be reached at scott.hammond@usu.edu

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