A job search is a lot like a leaky roof.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, we noticed a small water stain in our living room. “Huh,” we thought, worried about it a bit, and put it out of our minds.

That water stain is a bit like that nagging feeling that your job’s not a good fit, that you should be doing something else. (I used to call it the Whisper until I learned that Oprah did, too.) It’s not a crisis, just a quiet worry at the back of your mind.

“I have this sinking feeling that I’m not doing the right work,” a coaching client told me recently. That is what the Whisper sounds like.

Last winter, we noticed that the windowsill under the water stain was expanding oddly. We poked at it and it fell apart in our hands. We cut open the drywall and found wet insulation and rotten siding. And suddenly we had a big problem as we caught rainwater in buckets on the floor. (Really.)

The exploding windowsill is like the definitive proof that you need to leave your job: a poor performance review, an unacceptable interaction with your manager, suddenly too many Sunday nights filled with dread. A line is finally, eventually crossed and it’s time to find a solution.

Maybe we could just fix the leak, we thought, and talked to a couple of local carpenters. Kicking at the shingles on our roof, these carpenters all seemed to agree: It was failing systemically.

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I tell my coaching clients that it is not possible to know what you don’t know. You can do research online until you’re blue in the face, but then you need to go talk to interesting people doing interesting work. You will learn something from each one of those conversations, and patterns will begin to emerge, even if you don’t know yet know the end goal.

The pattern emerging from the carpenters was that we needed a roofing company. As we talked with roofers, we learned something new and important from each one. Terms like shiplap and tar paper were introduced. The third roofing company mentioned installing a ridge vent; the fourth looked behind a “knee wall” upstairs. The fifth told us how vital ventilation is when it comes to a 50-year materials warranty. Who knew?

Each conversation helped us ask more informed and pointed questions of the next roofer. Despite some dead ends and a couple of kooky roofers, our plan for fixing the roof began to crystallize. Just like a job search.

“Each networking conversation you have will inform what you’re looking for and how you talk about it,” I tell my coaching clients. “This is not a linear process: Some of those conversations will feel like dead ends and a waste of time, and it won’t matter because you’re learning something new and important and interesting in each one.”

It looks like we’re going with that fifth roofer, who proposed a sensible solution and, of all things, a metal roof.

Yeah, we’re going with a new metal roof. Much like a job search, not at all where we thought that leak was headed. But the more we talked to people, the more clear the best path out of our whisper-turned-crisis became.

Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore