There’s nothing quite like being broke to put the pressure on nailing an interview.
I had just moved to California the week before, and I had less than $500 in the bank — about half a month’s rent. My fledgling life coaching business was beginning to spread its wings, but income from my two clients definitely wouldn’t pay next month’s rent. So I found myself looking for part-time jobs in a new city with few connections.
The option I was most excited about was a lecturer position teaching a first year seminar at a University of California campus. The quarter started next week, but when I called on a Friday the contact said there was a last-minute opening and they were hiring someone to teach one unit. I hadn’t taught at a university before, but I had my M.A. and met the qualifications on paper. The position was everything I was looking for: it started immediately, was part-time, paid well and would be fun and interesting work. “Yes,” I told them, “I can interview Monday.”
An hour before the interview I happened to have a call with my mentor coach, Jeremy, who knew I was looking for side work as I built my coaching business. I mentioned the interview, and I’m sure he could hear that I was nervous. How could I not be? I was being interviewed for my first university teaching job by the Dean of the College. If that wasn’t enough, I really wanted this job. I needed income soon and I didn’t want to end up in a restaurant doing shift work for $15/hour.
This job was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it.
Before I got off my mentor coaching call and walked into the interview, Jeremy asked a question that shifted my approach to the interview completely:
“What is the contribution you want to make in this position?”
I paused and let out a deep breath.
“I know how formative someone’s first year of college can be, and this seminar is all about developing critical thinking and personal skills for success in an academic environment. I want to help students learn those skills in a safe, supportive environment, so they can be successful and take advantage of the same opportunities that education gave me.”
“Perfect,” Jeremy responded. “Focus on that and anything you say will be right.”
People respond to how we are being, not what we say
Here’s what my mentor knew in that moment, which I was just learning: people respond to how we are being, not what we say.
In interviews it’s normal to be hyper aware of what we’re saying. We want to make a good impression and we want to get the job. When we’re stressed or under pressure, our brain’s default is to worry about what could go wrong. If you’re at all nervous for an interview, you’re going to have thoughts like “Am I doing well?” or “What should I say next?”
The result is an unhelpful level of attention on ourselves and how we’re being perceived. Ironically, this distracts us from being present and engaged with the conversation we’re so worried about performing well for.
You may have experienced this when presenting or speaking publicly. I have a teacher friend who describes her worst days in front of the class as a sort of meta out-of-body nightmare:
“I’m writing on the whiteboard and then my brain goes, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about. The students aren’t paying attention.’ And suddenly I’ve totally lost the thread. When I snap out of it I’m just standing there awkwardly doing nothing.”
Focusing on saying the right thing often takes us down this slippery slope of unhelpful self-awareness. And how do you think it affects your interview chances if you show up seeming nervous, self-conscious and like you’re “trying hard”? I know, we’ve all been there.
So if it doesn’t work to go with your brain’s default worry about “saying the right thing,” what should you do instead?
Here’s the thing: in interviews — and in any moment — how people perceive you is a result of how you’re being with them, and how you’re being is a result of what you’re thinking about. You know this intuitively:
- You’re thinking about saying the right thing so you show up as self-conscious and nervous.
- You’re thinking about what you’ll make for dinner tonight so you show up as distracted.
- You’re thinking about how you’re overqualified for the job so you show up as disinterested.
- You’re thinking about the question you were just asked so you show up as present and focused.
How to show up authentically
I suspect most of us would be happy with an interview if we knew we showed up engaged, authentic and present. There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest I know is to focus on the contribution you want to make through the job you’re applying for.
This is what my mentor coached me to do before interviewing for the lecturer position: focus on the contribution I’d love to make in this teaching role. The result is that I was more relaxed and authentic during the interview.
adjective: of undisputed origin; genuine.
“Authentic” means genuine — it means you are being you, and that you really believe you would do a great job in the role you are interviewing for. It means you actually want the job, and you aren’t pretending to be someone you’re not.
The magic of focusing on contribution is that it takes the pressure off. You’re just here to do your best in a job you believe you could do well in.
I experienced this in my interview when the Dean of the College asked a very direct question:
“Diversity and privilege are major themes in the course you would be teaching, and students in our College tend to be very critical. Given your position as a highly educated white man, how would you respond if students questioned your ability to teach on these topics?”
You can imagine how this could have gone if I had been focused on “saying the right thing.” I probably would have attempted to string together some incoherent jargon about diversity and privilege, and I would have sounded like someone who had written their first Diversity and Teaching Statements two days ago (which was true).
What I did instead worked better.
I thought about the contribution I really wanted to make as a lecturer in this position, and I spoke from that. I acknowledged that this was a great question, and shared my view that students should see faculty as co-learners who guide their experience but don’t have all the answers. I talked about a similar past experience that taught me the value of listening when we occupy a position of privilege. Finally, I said I would connect with other experienced faculty and relevant campus resources for mentorship, so I could ensure I’m doing whatever I can to support students as they engage with these critical topics.
It needs to be experiential, not conceptual
At the end of the interview I was offered the job. I had a great time teaching and was invited back the next year, but at that point I was running a full-time coaching practice. When my clients ask for support preparing for an interview, one thing we do is focus on contribution.
When preparing for your next interview, try getting in touch with the contribution you envision making in the job you’re applying for. Here’s one way you could prepare:
- Think about the contribution you’d love to make through the position you’re applying for. Maybe you want to contribute bold leadership, compassion, or camaraderie. Perhaps it’s simply excellence and attention to detail. Make sure you really see what it is, and then write it down.
- Ask a friend to pose the question to you: “What is the contribution you’d love to make in this job?” When you’re speaking about it, let the quality of what you’re saying sink in. Say it a few times until your friend can tell you really mean it.
Before the interview, take a moment to remind yourself of the contribution you would make in this position. Focus fully on this, and trust that whatever words you say will be right.