Finding small wins amongst the failures
This article was originally appeared on “Anchored” on June 18, 2014
I recently endured the most challenging interview of my life. I use the word endured purposefully. What was supposed to be a position as a UX Designer turned out to be something much, much more. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get the job.
However, through the process I’ve learned a lot. And I’d like to share it with you. For some, this may seem like common sense, you might think to yourself, “Self, no wonder he didn’t get the job.” For others, and I hope for my own pride and sanity, you’ll find this piece insightful and useful. Whichever side of the fence you land on, I hope that this newfound wisdom can impart on you some element that leads to personal growth or affirmation.
Over the last few months, I’ve been looking for a new position. I won’t get into the gory details, but suffice it to say that I need something refreshing and challenging. In the midst of mindlessly submitting résumés to anything that sounded remotely interesting, I found a company, whose name I’ll leave unmentioned, that really piqued my interest. There was one line, amongst the hundreds of awesome ones, that stuck out:
“We are a product-driven company.”
It may seem like a simple line. It may even seem like something that should go without saying. If you think that, I would agree with you. The sad truth, though, is that many companies I’ve been around lately have deviated very far away from that. That single statement, gloriously wrapped in other fanciful jargon, excited me. I read the listing a few times. There were other fantastic perks, but you could tell from the way the listing was written that these folks were passionate about building a product that would change the world.
The company isn’t in a glamorous industry, they don’t cater to millionaires, they’ll never see the front page of The Verge, they’re not hip, they’re not even cool. However, what they are is passionate and driven by a clear vision. That’s something I wanted to get behind. Its something I wanted to be a part of.
Timidity ≠ humility and timidity is not a selling point
There’s some people who have an inherent understanding of their industry. They may not have gone to school, or had much formal training, but the critical foundations are common sense to them. Not to sound my own horn, but I’m one of those people. And for that reason, I’ve had a hard time in the past translating that into a résumé. Fortunately, just a few weeks prior, a good friend of mine helped me re-write mine. When he sent my first draft back to me, there wasn’t a single line that wasn’t highlighted in red. The notes he’d written took up more pages than the résumé itself. I consider myself a humble person, but if I’m being really honest, it may be more timidity than humility at times. And that, my friends, is not going to get you hired. After a few revisions, I felt comfortable about sending the thing out. It landed me at least a few phone interviews.
Hitting that send button with my résumé, cover letter, and some glittery you-should-hire-me-cause-I’m-awesome wording attached was rather uneventful. As it usually is. This company was so fantastic sounding that the idea of hearing something back was more of a pipe dream than something I thought could actually happen. Over the next few days I only thought about it a few times.
I was sitting on the sand in Laguna Beach with my wife and one year old boy when my phone buzzed. I casually picked it up and checked to see what it was. To my surprise, it was the company. They wanted to schedule a 30 minute phone screening. I was pretty pumped.
You don’t have all day to sit here and read this, so I’m gonna summarize a bit.
The first 30 minute interview went really well. I think its safe to say I passed with flying colors.
The second interview went well too. It was an hour long and I navigated the questions with grace and eloquence.
The third interview took place about 3 weeks after the first. This is where things fell apart.
I interviewed with one of two co-founders. He had graduated form MIT and he was every bit as smart as you’d imagine. I, on the other hand, graduated high school and floundered around in a junior college for two years. After a multi-year hiatus I went back and studied one whopping semester of business at everyone’s favorite online university; University of Phoenix. All the while I worked full-time, well-paying jobs in the design industry. I’d done really well for myself, and for someone with no college degree. What I don’t have in book smarts I’ve always made up for with common sense, intuition, tenacity, and perseverance. I love learning, but not the way schools teach.
In this scenario, a lack of informal education, and maybe by effect, an inability to banter at a highly intellectual level caused me to botch the most exciting interview I’ve ever had.
As I sat there in sunny California, staring into my computer screen, watching the busy New York street behind him, I tried to answer his questions the best I could. I fought to find the right words and lingo to explain how I’d grow and scale a business, how I’d know when it was time to diversify the product portfolio, or when the right time to hire additional man power was.
First off, those aren’t typical questions for a senior level UX designer. At the very least, those are the types of questions you ask a director. Secondly, there’s a right answer to those questions. Something tells me, though, that the right answers to those questions are buried somewhere inside a business text book I’ve never read.
Looking back, I probably sounded like I was trying too hard. It may have been ok for me to say I don’t know a few more times. Instead, I tried to explain instinct. Because, when I finally own my own business, I’m just gonna know when the right time to diversify my portfolio will be and I’m gonna be able to watch and pivot on the needs of man power. However, just saying, “You’ll know when you know” is not a very convincing or effective answer in an interview with an MIT grad.
The First Mistake: Under Prepared
The barrage of business and process focused questions definitely attributed to me losing my swagger after the first 3 minutes. However, I’m not so prideful that I won’t accept at least some of the responsibility for this failure. I knew several days in advance that I’d be meeting with the founder of the company. A company that had been around for 5 years, secured a number of millions in seed funding, and that put a lot of stock in the power of market research.
I failed to realize the opportunity I was being given.
Regardless of my lack of a college education, I’m a bright guy. I can hold my own in meetings with MBA’s about business strategy and road mapping. I understand business in a good way, but I failed miserably to prepare in a way that would allow me to win this time. Instead I got cocky and allowed myself to feel overly confident.
The Second Mistake: Entitlement
That confidence led me to feel like I already had this in the bag. That there was no way they were going to say ‘no.’ After all, I had knocked the first two interviews out of the park. I felt a sense of entitlement, like this job was already mine.
The Third Mistake: Follow Up
Following up after an interview has always been tricky for me. It seems like an odd thing to do and I never know what to say.
Hey, we just talked. Thanks for that. I really hope you hire me.
I sent my first email the following day. I’m sure that was a good move. It was quite a bit more elegant, but essentially what’s above. Where I went wrong, though, was over the course of the next 8 days. I waited patiently to hear back. I told myself, “Self, you’re being polite.” What a heap of steaming BS that was. I wasn’t being polite. I was acting like a sixth grader who’s afraid to ask the girl he likes to dance.
They say hind sight is always 20/20, but I feel like hind sight is more like 20/10. You know, those freaks of nature who can see things at 20 feet that you can only see at 10? What I should have done was immediately put a hand-written note in the mail. Maybe draw some memorable picture on it and tell them how awesome they were. Then I should have reached out at least once, if not two more times to let them know that I was thinking about them. Instead I sat around, frantically looking at my phone every time it vibrated, hoping that they’d write me back.
So (dot dot dot)
Now, instead of signing a work offer and reading an on boarding packet from HR, I’m sitting here in this dark room writing a blog post about how not to be an idiot. All rhetoric aside though, this was a very valuable experience for me. Its a competitive job market out there and there’s a million other guys and gals just like me that would have loved to have (and are probably capable of having) that job. I took a golden opportunity and blew it.
I’ll tell you this much, the next time something like this comes my way, you’d better believe that I’m gonna land it. I’m damn good at what I do. I bet that you’re damn good at what you do too. Go out and grab life by the horns, wrestle it to the ground and show those around you how driven you are to succeed.
Go forth and build.
This post was written while listening to Trentemøller: The Last Resort