What Job Seekers Can Learn from Freud

The Interpretation of Dreams was originally published in 1899. To put it mildly, it was rejected by the scientific community. In fact, in the six years following its publication only 351 copies were sold. (This post is based on the ebook of the 8th edition, published in 2010 by Basic Books.) Ironically, and I only share this for the obvious historic significance, Freud wrote the preface to the second edition, in the summer of 1908 in, of all places, Berchtesgaden!

So the first lesson job seekers can learn from Freud is don’t give up. Have the courage of your convictions. Accept criticism and address it professionally. In the end, you may be proven correct (even if your choice of vacation spots may, one day, prove rather unfortunate!). As Freud wrote in the preface to the third edition, “just as formerly I was unwilling to regard the neglect of my book by readers as evidence of its worthlessness, so I cannot claim that the interest which is now being taken in it is a proof of its excellence” (loc. 356-358). In other words, don’t beat yourself up when things are not going your way, and don’t get a swelled head when they do.

(Segue missing because I could not think of one!)

I have a theory about decision making. If you sleep well at night you made the right decision for you. It may appear to be wrong for someone else, immoral, unethical, even indecent, but for you it was the right decision. You decided to quit your job without having a new job. That’s Mistake #1 in the Career Counseling Handbook. (Don’t look for it; there’s no such thing!) But for you it was the right decision because you could not take another day with your idiot boss, stupid colleagues and moronic clients. So you slept very well that night and then, in the morning, you started to deal with your new reality.

This article, though, is not about the morning, it’s about the night. Specifically, about your literal dreams. Not the day dreams of killing the boss, burning down the office building, posting your clients’ secrets on Facebook, but the dreams you dream at night when your mind is actually calm and you are not, in reality, in control.

Now I happen to be one of those people who says, figuratively, “I don’t dream.” And, figuratively, it’s true. I can’t tell you the last dream I had because I never remember my dreams. Never. But, of course, I dream every night. If humans did not dream they would die. We need REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep to keep our sanity. So we all dream. It’s just that some of us do not remember our dreams. (Shortly I shall contradict myself.)

But I have a simple test to show if your dream was a happy one or a troubling one, because even if you can’t remember it your bed will! First, though, we need Freud to define for us what a dream actually is in reality.

He wrote, “There is a popular saying that ‘dreams come from indigestion’ and this helps us to see what is meant by the stimuli and sources of dreams.” In other words, have a spicy meal for dinner and don’t expect to dream about unicorns. Dragons are more likely to fill your thoughts!

But it has always been recognized that dreams are “pre-monitors of illness” (loc. 980-982). Again, I quote the Master (loc, 1004-1007):

It it is established that the interior of the body when it is in a diseased state becomes a source of stimuli for dreams, and if we admit that during sleep the mind, being diverted from the external world, is able to pay more attention to the interior of the body, then it seems plausible to suppose that the internal organs do not need to be diseased before they can cause excitations to reach the sleeping mind – excitations which are somehow turned into dream-images.

From this I draw my second conclusion for job seekers: listen to your body. Having left your job, you are no longer “being diverted from the external world,” so you can concentrate on yourself. I had one career counseling client who, for no apparent reason, was doing poorly in interviews. He got plenty of interviews, so his cover letter and resume were fine, but he just could not get any job offers.

When we would do mock or practice interviews, he did great. But they were not real and, I, of course, could not see what was happening during the real interviews. Then he got lucky. He asked one of his interviewers to critique his “performance.” And she did. All of her colleagues agreed with her that he did not appear to be the type of person who could handle stress. That was rubbish. His job was very stressful and he had been highly successful at it. But the criticism could not be ignored. So I sent him to the doctor and, one blood test later they discovered the problem, the doctor wrote a prescription for the cure and, once his body was under control he aced his next interview and got the offer. So listen to your body. He had been having problems but attributed them to his being unemployed. He never bothered to tell me about them. After all, I’m not that type of doctor!

I think the best analogy may be “the sport of kings.” Boxers, if I am not mistaken, by law, always have to have a medical check before stepping into the ring. So too should the job seeker.

I have always believed that we dream just before we wake and that the dream only lasts a few seconds even though it may be a dream about an experience that took place in the near or distant past over a good period of time. It is common for people to dream, for example, about hearing church bells and then to wake to their alarm clock. Apparently, I’m not wrong, although I would hesitate to say that I am right. According to Freud, “Once we have put ourselves to sleep by excluding all stimuli, there is no need and no occasion for dreaming until morning, when the process of being gradually awakened by the impact of fresh stimuli,” such as an alarm clock, someone calling your name, a knock on the door, traffic, “might be reflected in the phenomenon of dreaming” (loc. 1705-1707).

What Freud showed was that “dreams really have a meaning” (loc. 2412-2413) and “a dream is the fulfillment of a wish” (Chapter 3). But it can all be in reverse. You can dream the opposite of reality. For example, Freud tells the story (loc. 2481-2484) of a friend who told him that his wife dreamed that she was having her period. The truth was that she had missed her period. As he wrote, “It was a neat way of announcing her first pregnancy.” (There is something about Freud saying “neat” that bothers me!)

If you remember your dreams, you are lucky, because “Dreams are never concerned with trivialities; we do not allow our sleep to be disturbed by trifles” (loc. 3373-3374). So if you can remember your dreams you can know what is really on your mind.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation I complained to one of my professors that during the night I would wake up with a great solution to whatever problem I was facing, but, in the morning, I could never remember what it was. (This would be the aforementioned contraction!) He told me to keep a pad of paper and a pen by my bed. I did and when I would wake up in the middle of the night with my brilliant discovery, I would immediately write it down. Great idea in theory, but in practice, not so great. Rarely could I read my handwriting (which is bad enough when I am awake!). But sometimes it worked. I realized that I had to be really awake so I would turn on the light and sit up to write. That made all the difference.

So my third suggestion to job seekers is, for example, if you dream about the perfect answer to an interview question, wake up and write it down. You never know, it may get you the job offer!

Of course, one of the problems job seekers have is that they know too much about themselves. There are things they worry a prospective employer may find out. Usually it is nonsense and the job seeker is making a big deal out of nothing. I had one client who was mortified that he would be asked about a project he had been responsible for 20 years (!) earlier which had failed. I told him (a) there was virtually no chance an employer would know about it, (b) there was no chance that they would care about it, and (c) to use it as an example of a learning experience. He did and he got the offer.

As Freud notes (loc. 3816-3917), “there are many things which one has to keep secret from other people but of which one makes no secret to oneself.” Failures are things we want to keep secret. But that’s just silly. We all have had them. They are important experiences. Even Freud failed. In his case it was his Forensic Medicine finals. How do I know? He wrote about it (loc. 4886-4887)!

Finally one last bit of advice. When you find an error on your resume or your cover letter, make sure it does not happen again, but don’t lose any sleep over it. For one thing, once you hit “send” you can’t take it back. But Freud shares a cute story which just goes to show something I learned a long time ago: People don’t read!

As the good doctor tells it (loc. 8663-8665), “The editor of a popular French periodical is said to have made a bet that he would have the words ‘in front’ or ‘behind’ inserted by the printer in every sentence of a long article without a single one of his readers noticing it. He won the bet.”

So when you go to sleep tonight, think about your job search and how you will handle the wording of your cover letters, resume, and how you will answer those tough interview questions that are causing you stress. And then dream about them. Because “dreams are nothing other than fulfillment of wishes” (loc. 9441) and “[b]y picturing our wishes as fulfilled, dreams are after all leading us into the future…” (loc. 10608-10609). So dream that you get the interview and job offer and, according to Freud, you will!

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Bruce Hurwitz, the Amazon international best selling author of The 21st Century Job Search and Immigrating to Israel, is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that! A five-star rated speech writer on Fiverr, he is the host and producer of the live-interview podcast, Bruce Hurwitz Presents: MEET THE EXPERTS