Applying the Concept of Mental Toughness to the Job Search Process

by Mary E. Ghilani

A successful job search starts and ends with a positive attitude. But how does one remain positive during the often frustrating process of trying to find a job? While I was writing Second Chance: How Career Changers Can Find A Great Job, I spoke with a friend about her job search experience. She told me how physically and mentally exhausting the whole interviewing process was. She described having to “really be on top of your game” for several hours at a time, experiencing a letdown after the interview, and then having to gear herself up to do it all over again for the next interview. She said it was difficult to remain positive, especially when you were sure you were going to get the position but didn’t. After listening to that story, and many similar stories, it occurred to me that job seekers needed to develop a degree of mental toughness when it comes to playing the job search game.

Sports announcers and coaches frequently refer to the concept of mental toughness. Think about the quarterback who fumbles the ball or throws an interception in a critical down of a play. The worst thing he can do is get flustered and throw another interception. Successful quarterbacks are able to put their mistakes behind them, refocus, and go out there and throw a touchdown. The ability to learn from the experience and move on successfully to the next play is a mentality that not only helps football players win games but would go a long way to helping job seekers progress from one job interview to the next.

Taking this analogy a step further, here are some of the key characteristics of mental toughness that career counselors can tell clients to apply during the job search process:

  • Self-Belief. Confidence in your skills and abilities. Begin each search with a positive attitude. Believe that you are going to be successful in your job search.

  • Motivation. The ability to continue to apply for jobs and go through interviews until you are offered a job even though times are tough and you experience rejection. Too many job seekers give up prematurely or unintentionally sabotage their chances by becoming discouraged, pessimistic, or losing confidence.

  • Focus. The ability to maintain focused on what you need to do to get a job. To remember the points you want to make during an interview and be able to focus on answering the questions, despite being nervous. If you are faced with a difficult question, take a deep breath, ask for clarification if needed, answer the question as best you can and then focus on the next question.

  • Composure. The ability to keep calm during a stressful situation. Make sure you are prepared for the interview. Use relaxation techniques to bring down your anxiety level. Learn to let go of mistakes quickly. Letting go allows you to regain composure to answer the next question confidently. Reframe negative self-talk into positive, action-oriented affirmations.

Today’s job seekers must be able to handle rejection and tolerate the frustration of waiting for responses from employers. Understanding what aspects of the job search process you can and cannot control will allow you to minimize uncertainly and exercise a degree of control over your situation:

  • Do what you can to increase the chances of employment. Look, speak, and behave professionally. Acquire new skills to make yourself more marketable. Anticipate the types of questions you’ll be asked and prepare answers ahead of time.

  • Understand that your timeline is not the same as the employer’s timeline. The employer is not sitting there waiting for a job offer. Gain as much information as you can by diligently following up by phone or email on the status of your application. But most importantly, do not feel that you have to helplessly wait by the phone. Continue to actively search for openings and participate in interviews.

  • Although you can dramatically increase or decrease the chances of being hired by the way you present yourself in the interview, you ultimately have no control over who an employer hires. Recognizing that sometimes employers make decisions based on things that have absolutely nothing to do with you will help you to view the process more objectively and not take rejection personally.

  • After the interview, step back and reflect on the experience. If you do not get the job, take a moment to acknowledge your disappointment, anger, or frustration, and then put it behind you. Learn what you can from the experience and apply it to the next opportunity.

Building mental job toughness is like building muscle, you have to work at it in order to make it stronger. Take care of yourself, mentally and physically, during the process. Focus on what you want to occur, rather than on the things that went wrong. The more interviews you attend, the better you will become at interviewing which will only increase the likelihood of receiving a job offer.



Connaughton, D., Hanton, S., and Jones, G. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14 (3), 205-218.

Yukelson, D. What is Mental Toughness and How to Develop It? Penn State University, Retrieved August 12, 2009, from http://www.mascsa.psu.edu/dave/Mental-Toughness.pdf





Mary GhilaniMary E. Ghilani, M.S., NCC, is the director of career services at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Second Chance: How Career Changers Can Find a Great Job, 10 Strategies for Reentering the Workforce, and Web-Based Career Counseling and can be reached at mghilani@luzerne.edu.

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shelia mccomb   on Tuesday 05/03/2011 at 10:37 AM

Thank you, Mary Ghilani, for this very helpful summary of these concepts. I find myself saying these kinds of things on a daily basis - esp. in this economy. I sent it to 2 counselor networks in MN.

Mary Ghilani   on Tuesday 05/03/2011 at 11:52 AM

Thanks, Shelia.

Laird Crandall   on Tuesday 05/17/2011 at 07:34 PM

I loved the article and never thought of it this way but it is a great concept. Am in private practice and appreciated the article.

Mary E. Ghilani   on Wednesday 05/18/2011 at 09:16 AM

Thanks, Laird, finding a job in this economy just takes a long time. Key is to last longer than the proces.

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