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Responsibilities May Include

Silver medalist syndrome: how to cope with being the runner-up in a work search

Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of “coming second,” job seekers need to address the issues that are within their control and shift their perspective.


At the 2008 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps won his seventh gold medal by finishing one hundredth of a second before his closest competitor, Milorad Cavic. Mr. Cavic had beaten both Mr. Phelps and an Olympic record in a preliminary heat, but during the medal race, he missed winning gold by centimetres.

Some clients in our career centre seem to have a similar experience to Mr. Cavic’s: they lost an opportunity to another candidate who exceeded their performance. Around the office, we idiomatically refer to what these clients experience as the “silver medalist syndrome.” They are Olympians, but it wasn’t their day for gold. These candidates appear to be highly qualified. Their resumé satisfies and may even exceed the requirements of positions they have pursued. They believe they presented themselves well to interviewers and may have received feedback that they were amongst the top contenders. However, as Ask a Manager and Forbes have indicated, this situation is unusual but not unheard of.

Three key strategies

To support clients, we explain how the individual job seeker is part of a larger system. The client controls their development and behaviour, but they are subject to external forces such as the labour market, economy and politics. For example, a top-performing forestry student who participated in internships, mentorship and advising sessions may be well-prepared to enter the workplace upon graduation. However, if there is a trade dispute between countries affecting the industry, prospects for landing work may be limited.

By committing to at least one or all of the following strategies, an Olympian client can address the issues that are within their control, shift their perspective and discover more employment opportunities.

1. Keeping multiple options open (KMOO)

A broad job search means wasted effort, but a narrow search can create tunnel vision and limit options. A refined job search reduces unnecessary effort. For example, instead of focusing on job titles that are too vague, such as a “Research Assistant” or “Analyst”, the client can search for specific skills they excel at such as GIS, 3D modelling, forest planning, lab management or policy analysis. Automate the process by creating a list of relevant and effective keywords and create email alerts for sites such as Eluta, LinkedIn Jobs and/or Indeed. However, searching exclusively on vertical search engines for employment opportunities is a low risk activity.

The terms high and low risk imply a conflict between danger and safety. In Roadmap, the authors look at risk not as danger versus safety, but as necessary versus unnecessary risks. Reframe some common career development strategies to look for necessary and possibly “high” risk actions to move forward. Consider the following examples:

  • Focusing only on permanent employment (lower risk) when clients may find rewarding consulting and freelance opportunities (higher, but in some situations a necessary risk).
  • Despite spending time and money, attending a skills-development class is a low risk activity that can be coupled with a higher/necessary risk of asking the instructor and classmates for advice and insight.

Risk taking is inextricably connected to the strategy of KMOO. Many of our Olympian clients who have navigated a few “failures” need to go outside their comfort zone and take necessary risks.

2. Not every thought is true

Not every thought is true. Negative self-talk is usually untrue and unproductive, and can be characterized by the inner worst critic who may say, “You didn’t get the job, you failed again” and the inner nicest friend who may say, “They don’t deserve you, you’re better than them.” Activate the inner personal coach who says, “Even though you didn’t land the job, you learned a lot, received useful feedback and you put your best foot forward. Awesome work.” Job searchers who engage in negative self-talk should consider different ways to exercise self-compassion.

Byron Katie’s The Work includes effective steps to objectively and mindfully engage with internal commentary:

  1. Is the thought true? (Yes or no. If no, move to step three).
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no).
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?
  5. Find the “turnarounds” and examples of them (i.e. considering the opposite thought to be true).

Another reframing technique includes exposing ourselves to new perspectives. For example, a client read the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans and enrolled in a user experience design short course to be around other design thinkers. The client was inspired by design professionals and their ability to experiment, fail forward and remain open-minded.

Clients can find a supportive community, either online or in-person, to inundate themselves with “mindset inspiration.” The discussion should be positive, uplifting and energizing. Joining an online work search forum or group that has a tone of desperation and negativity does not support clients struggling with negative self-talk.

3. Act, reflect and rest

Olympian clients might take on too many actions at the expense of reflection. They may focus on what they do not control, such as an organization selecting a different candidate, and push aside what they can control, like conducting adequate research into the target organization.

In harmony with action and reflection is rest. Rest refers to taking a break or trying a different activity when energy lags. Is the client’s process depleting energy? Are aspects of it energizing? Applying to 10+ jobs online a day may be energy-draining busy-work, in comparison to a refreshing conversation with a former colleague or new classmate. This conversation may have higher returns for the client including new information and insight. Career conversations act as great opportunities for practicing act, reflect and rest – they activate our career network, allow us to consider new ideas in relation to our current situation, as well as re-energize, motivate and inspire us.

Justin Pritchard is a career coach. Christine Gertz is a library and information specialist. Both work at the University of Alberta.
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