Lessons From the Sea: What Fishing Taught Me About Overcoming an Unsuccessful Job Search

When I moved to Oregon from California a few years ago, I decided to learn how to fish.

I grew up in a family for which fishing wasn't very popular; I can only remember fishing once in my entire childhood. I don't recall learning anything aside from putting the worm on the hook.

Back to Oregon: After some trial and error, YouTube videos, and the kind support of friends and local fisherman, I began learning the basics of fishing.

Over time, I noticed that the more I practiced, the more frequently I caught fish. As my first summer of fishing drew to a close, I ended up moving to another part of town, where I was close to a beautiful hidden pond near the Department of Fish and Wildlife. This secret gem became my go-to fishing destination; when I fished there, I wouldn't see another person for hours at a time.

Even though I was the only person fishing this pond, I wasn't having much luck. Months went by without a single bite. At first, this didn't bother me. The main reason I took up fishing was to pick up a convenient, low-maintenance hobby that would immerse me in nature.

Slowly, though, I began to wonder whether there were any fish in the pond. Maybe it was the wrong season? I asked a few people in town about local fishing conditions, and I was informed that, yes, there were indeed fish to be caught this time of year,

The weeks and months continued by; I still hadn't gotten a single bite.

As the weather improved, I started to see other people at my fishing spot. On a few occasions, they even caught fish! This was reassuring: It confirmed there was a chance I could catch something at this pond!

I asked some of these guys about the bait they were using. Their answers varied, but my thought was: Every time I ask someone who is experiencing success in an area I am not, I get the next piece of information I need to eventually experience success, too.

So, the first change I made was switching my bait to the same type one guy used to catch a fish at the pond. I tried this bait a few times, but I never caught anything.

Next, I went over to the local Bi-Mart and asked the knowledgeable woman in the sporting department about the bait I should be using based on the type of year and the kinds of fish in season. I bought the bait she recommended and went right out to fish.

I noticed a small change: The fish were eating this bait – but they still weren't getting hooked.

Now, I was frustrated.

I felt I was clearly doing something wrong. Questions flooded my mind:

How was I able to catch a bunch of fish in my first few months learning how to fish but not now?

Why was I still coming up short, even after using the bait suggested by local fisherman more experienced than myself?

Seriously, what am I doing wrong here?!

One day, I spent hours at the pond trying every combination I could think of. I varied the amount of time I let the bait sink and my reeling speed. I switched spots along the pond, casting close, casting far, adding weights to the line. I tried everything I could think of, and still, I caught nothing.

As I left the pond that day, worn out and frustrated, I realized that the thoughts and feelings I had regarding my lack of fishing success felt oddly familiar to me. But why?

Eventually, it dawned on me: This was exactly how I felt during unsuccessful periods of past job hunts. Realizing this, I began to look for lessons in my fishing experience – and I found them:

Lesson No. 1: A New Awareness + Previous Lessons = Change (Provided You're Willing to Take the Uncomfortable Actions Necessary for Change)

As "luck" would have it, the next week I went out fishing to that same spot, and I saw three new people out there already catching fish. I noticed that one of the guys had caught a lot more fish than anybody else. I decided right then to model my fishing behavior after everything he was doing. The numbers didn't lie: I had been fishing at this pond for eight months without catching a thing, whereas this man had caught numerous fish in less than an hour.

Lesson No. 2: Making Change Requires Getting Over Your Pride

For weeks, as I set out to make changes and ask for guidance, I wrestled with my pride. I had to get out of my own way, recognizing that it was my thinking that got me here in the first place. After months of zero success, I still had to fight the feeling that I could do it on my own, that things would somehow be different the next time.

Instead, I had to shift my patterns. I had to do things differently if I wanted to experience different results.

Fortunately, the new guy I wanted to model myself after was more than happy to tell me about the bait he was using. He even offed me some! I tried it out but was a little dismayed when, after 20 minutes, he had caught another fish, and I still had nothing.

I asked the fisherman if he felt I could improve my form in any way. He smiled and calmly gestured to my pole.

"Your hook is too big," he explained. "The fish I'm catching in this pond have small mouths; they couldn't get hooked on this."

I stared at him in complete shock. I had never even considered that before, but it made so much sense!

I realized why I made this huge oversight: Being from Los Angeles, I had very little firsthand experience with rivers and ponds. For me, fishing was primarily an ocean activity. I never considered how the differences between these bodies of water would affect the act of fishing.

Lesson No. 3: The Conditions of the Water May Not Appear Different to Us, But That May Be Because We're Unaware of the Differences.

Within five minutes of using a smaller hook, I caught my first fish in that pond! It was a satisfying and humbling experience, reminding me that we can be quite stubborn and prideful at times, hanging onto the belief that we know what's best – even when, deep down, we know we don't.

But the story doesn't end here. After I caught that fish, I learned a lesson that was equally as important as the previous three lessons, if not even more so.

The bait this guy had given me was a gooey substance, and I found it very challenging to get it to cover the hook and stay on it after a few casts. The fisherman had been kind enough to place this bait on the hook the first time around when he saw I was having difficulty.

Feeling embarrassed – and not wanting to return to the fisherman, who had already helped me out "enough" – I grabbed some of my old bait because it was easier to use. I put it on the hook and began casting my line out into the water again as if nothing had changed.

A good ten minutes went by before it struck me: Within a few minutes of learning what I needed to do to catch a fish in this pond, I had already reverted back to my old, unsuccessful ways of fishing. Doing this felt so completely natural to me that it took a while before I was even aware of what I was doing.

I got over my fears and returned to the fisherman. I explained to him that I was still having difficulty with the bait he gave me.  The fisherman didn't seem at all bothered by me, and he readily came to my aid. This time, I put the bait on myself with him guiding me. That way, I would know how to do it myself from that point on.

Lesson No. 4: Even When New Approaches Bring Us Success, It's Easy to Revert Back to Our Old Ways

This is especially true if we've been doing things the old way for a long time. To experience sustained success, though, it is imperative to trade the old ways that don't work for the new ways that do – even if reverting back to the old ways seems easier.

As it pertains to the job search and landing a job you actually want, I leave readers with this question: Which of these lessons have you yet to learn for yourself?

If you haven't been getting the types of results you want, I can almost guarantee you have yet to master the right lessons – much like me and my first foray into fishing.

Scott Engler is the author of The Job Inner-View and Legends of the Recruiting and Career World. Read his latest, The Problem and the Solution, on his website.