There are two types of interview questions: The tricky ones that we never want to be at the receiving end of, and the simple ones. You know them, the ones that everyone expects, and prepares well in advance for, “Tell me about yourself,” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Why do you want to work for this company?.”
I was never a fan of the tough ones, both as an interviewer and as an interviewee.
As a candidate, tricky questions made me nervous. The debilitating fear of saying the wrong thing was so profound that I could barely translate my thoughts into words. I would space out, start mumbling incoherently, and then rapidly wrap up with generic sentences to make up for the lost time.
If I had to repeat the answer afterward, I wouldn’t recall over half of it. And as is the case with witty comebacks, sarcastic retorts, and debate rebuttals, many right answers would start popping into my mind on the journey back home. I would kick myself, “Great answer. You couldn’t have thought of this thirty minutes ago?”
As an interviewer, I usually met candidates face to face, twice. Once in the beginning, when I would have a chat with them about the company plus the position offered, and once in the end when I would have to determine whether this person would be a good culture fit for the company.
Knowing the rigorous nature of the recruitment process (which I had little to no control over), I could accurately guess what they were feeling. Thus, I liked to keep things short and simple.
I would ensure that the interviewee was comfortable, not take any more time than I needed, and ask a few of the aforementioned simple questions. My focus was never on them though; instead, it was on the answers:
- When asked a run of the mill, mundane question, what does a person actually say?
- What words do they choose?
- Are they trying to engage me in a conversation or deliver a rehearsed speech?
- What do they really think of themselves?
- Do they believe this opportunity to be the right fit?
How an interviewee used this opportunity to their advantage, would help me evaluate their candidature. At that time, I used to think that the equation is pretty straightforward, the better the answer, the better the candidate.
And I would duly note down my interview feedback, close the folder, and move on to the next one without giving it any further thought.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” was my most used question.
The contents of the answer helped me determine the interviewees’ professional vision, drive to succeed, passion for (their) career, and articulation skills. It also helped me understand how much their personality and goals aligned with the needs of the company.
It was also my favorite question to answer. I would concoct most of it to perfection before the interview, and adapt some of it dynamically during, based on my assessment of what the interviewer wanted to hear. Every time I answered this question, I thought to myself, “I have killed it.”
I used to think that my answer would form the foundation for my future, which would be brighter and more than my current limited thoughts.
Five years ago, this would be my answer — Actually, let me spare you the flowery language and uber-confident tone, here’s the stripped-down version of my response:
- I would be climbing the corporate ladder hard and fast.
- I would be managing a team.
- I would be damn good at my job, and everybody would know it.
- My Linkedin profile would be one to revere.
- I would have made a few significant contributions to the field of Human resources.
- I would be rich enough not to have to worry about money.
- I would be doing better than my peers, who chose more conventional careers (not out of passion but for guaranteed success).
- I would have won my parents’ approval by proving (to them) that choosing a path of my choice from the limited options offered to me was indeed the right decision.
At twenty-five, these goals seemed utterly achievable to me. I had finished my post-graduation in Psychology, specializing in Human Resources, from a good University about a year ago. I had just resigned from my first job at a medium-sized company where I had the rare opportunity to learn an HR department’s inner workings from the ground up.
I had a lucrative job offer from a promising Startup. The company was at a sweet spot, that early stage where you huddle in a tiny space, work for extended hours, and dare to dream big. I was going to start the HR division and hire a dream squad for the company that would be directly responsible for its success. I had a seat at the table, and my prospects had never seemed brighter.
I would be remiss if I did not ask you to note the glaring lack of personal goals in my five-year plan. This is so much more than an interview question, isn’t it? It’s a life question. And I had no personal goals that I could dare list.
I hadn’t spared enough thought to figure out the kind of person I wanted to be, how I would manage my mental health, or about relationships. I was too afraid to do so.
But, things were different with my career. I could plan it, control most aspects of it, and I had the determination to make things happen. My career was going to be enough, or so I thought.
Now, in July 2020, let’s see if I can check any of these items off:
- I work for myself, so there’s no corporate ladder to climb.
- I do not manage a team. Most days, I have trouble managing myself.
- I am a writer now. I can write, but I wouldn’t say that I am good at it, yet.
- I started a new Linkedin profile after deleting my old one with about 9k connections and 6k followers.
- I have not made any significant contributions to the field of writing.
- I have a minimal amount of money.
- I am not doing better than my peers, according to generally accepted standards.
- I have not won my parents’ approval and have learned the invaluable lesson that I was never going to gain it anyway. How can I win at a rigged game?
According to this list, my life reads like a failure. But it isn’t, not because failure is a step towards success, it really isn’t. Let’s look outside the list, at the things that did happen.
I finally realized that I needed to allow myself to live the life that I wanted.
And I started walking on a path that was unruly, foggy, and unclear. One year ago, I finally dared to move on from my ex-career and follow my one true passion — writing.
This journey has been like a rollercoaster ride with several ups and downs, constant nausea, and overflowing thrill. What I feel when I write cannot be described in words. As ironic as that sounds, I mean it.
Following my passion, feeling the pain it stirs in my heart, celebrating tiny victories, and doing what I want to do every single day has been the best decision I have ever made. I have never felt so alive.
I am loved. I have a partner who supports me and my passion in innumerable ways. Although I have known this person for ages, every day feels like new. The magic is alive and kicking as we live our best lives. We also continue to work on ourselves and the relationship.
Someone having your back when you are vulnerable and still trying new and dangerous stuff is the world’s second-best feeling.
I am also in a healthy relationship with myself. I have learned to trust myself, to treat myself with kindness, and to accept myself as I am. And I am content, a feeling and state of being that would have never made it to my list in a hundred years.
If you ask me this question today, I wouldn’t have an answer.
At least not one that I can fit into bullet points. Seeing how the last few years have turned out, I wonder, is there even a point in predicting the next five years of my life?
For example, take this year, the one in which I am turning thirty — ahh the lofty dreams and resolutions I had. A news report in mid-March lit the whole list on fire. And it did so for most of us. If the pandemic has taught me anything (and there has been an avalanche of learnings), it is that compromising now for the future is not a good idea.
We do not know the future, we cannot control it, and we may not exist in it.
I am not asking you to stop thinking about the future altogether. I am not asking you to stop creating goals. I am saying that maybe it’s time that we change the way we plan for the future.
Let me take another crack at this question.
The first thing that I can say for sure, which I will have in five years, is that I will be writing. If I am alive, and my mind+fingers work, I will be typing. I will be sharing my story. I cannot determine whether I would have tasted an ounce of success, but I will still be pursuing my passion. I have found the one that is true to my essence, the one I can bleed for — and now, there’s no giving up.
The second thing that I can add to this list is love — Self-Love. I will continue to believe in myself and care for myself. If I am alive, nothing can stop me from doing so. I do hope to have other kinds of love in my life (because as of now, I cannot imagine a day or even a moment without it), but I can’t be entirely sure, can I?
I would have a couple more lines under my eyes, and the ratio of gray to brown hair on my head would have increased. I will have to accept aging.
The third and final thing, which is more of an optimistic addition, is that I will have gained more perspective on this infinite concept called life. I would continue to take inward journeys, walk on the long road of self-improvement, and remember the important things. I will continue to be content.
Can you spot the difference between the two lists?
In this one, I focus solely and entirely on myself. I chose not to factor in the rest of the world or set goals for myself that are a means to a not-so-well-thought-out end.
I have spent the last three years getting to know myself, the person beneath the superficial likes, dislikes, and generic personality characteristics. To learn more about myself, I first had to unlearn who everyone, and I thought I was.
I had to remove the barnacles.
Do you know what they had in common? All of them wanted to please other people and achieve my then opinion of success, with a secret desire to prove everyone wrong.
To my utter surprise, the bare person underneath was fascinating. She is complicated, but every string of the tangled mess is worth studying. She feels she cries, she dreams. She is perfectly imperfect. And she cannot be contained in a bulleted five-year list.
I have learned what it is to think for myself genuinely.
I have begun to understand the complexity and limitlessness of my universe and the purpose of my life. It’s been hard, like exploring a dark cave with a tiny light strapped to your head, but I am exploring all right. I have started to accept myself for who I really am, warts and all, and inward journeys that I have taken for this purpose have been incredibly freeing.
Working on myself, from a position of love, has been a game-changer. The long and arduous roads don’t seem so challenging anymore. It doesn’t seem like work anymore. On the contrary, I feel well prepared for the journeys to come.
My most crucial learning has been this — the moment I factored in someone or something else, people’s standardized opinions, conventions, notions, rules, and guidelines, I had lost the plot.
I have realized that fixating on towering goals for the future can provide only temporary relief, and for me, it was indeed an attempt to escape the present. I did not like myself, my life, and my career, and a tunnel vision for the future helped me get through the hard times.
I made myself believe that I was working towards a tomorrow that would be brilliant, that I would be happy then, and the suffering of the now will be worth it one day.
As hard as it is, I have learned to only focus on goals that I can accomplish right now. For example, from January to March 2020, I published only one article per month. I made myself accept that I may write only twelve pieces in the entire year, and I needed to be okay with that. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I got through it.
Now, I am writing about four articles a month, have developed a reliable writing process, pursuing education for pleasure, trying out different genres of writing, and not letting self-doubt hold me down. These are worthy accomplishments, but I can only feel them because I didn’t set unrealistic and unreasonable expectations.
If I had set out goals for this year, I would have fallen short of them and missed out on what I am feeling now. Proving yourself wrong — the right way can be exhilarating. I now feel infinitely better about myself as a writer, and I believe that I have made it past some crucial milestones.
I don’t have a proper plan for beyond this week. Even this week’s plan is wonky because I am on my Period, and its intensity can be unpredictable. I have a rough outline, a sense of where I am going with my work, a list of ideas, and such, but they occupy a small place in my head and Google Drive. Their job is to serve as guidelines, something I can refer to when I want to.
At this moment, all I can think of is completing this piece so that I can enjoy the weekend as I listen to This Moment by Katy Perry — talk about perfect timing.
I do have lofty plans for the weekend, and that is doing a whole lot of nothing. Two days of Netflix, staying in bed, and eating tasty food would be a fulfilling way to end this month. And I want to be present for every moment of it.
I will loosely plan the next month on Monday.
My expectations, goals, and plans reside within my circle of control.
They are directed entirely towards “me” and “now.” I understand that it is quite narrow, but this system works for me. I think of it as damage control for not focussing on myself and the present for twenty-seven years.
In the future, I do intend to look for a better one. I know that one day I will grow too big for this circle, and my ambition will come knocking. That day I will start promoting my work on Facebook — problem solved. On a serious note, I do need to be aware of the right time to look for an answer, to find something that will suit my then needs best.
And I think the answer lies somewhere in between. I will need to find a balance between the present and the future. Having a vision is essential; it gives us direction and purpose, but it needs to be entirely mine. Someone else’s idea will not work for me, and mine is not going to work for you.
“I need to think about what I want from myself and what I can give to myself. I need to think about what I want to have and what I can do without. I need to think about who I am, who I am not, and who I want to be.”
I also need to prepare a mission. A prediction without understanding the steps required to achieve it is not going to work out.
Right now, I am finding my feet as a writer and teaching myself to enjoy the process. You only start something once. A while later, I cannot expect success to creep in surprisingly or somehow happen overnight. I need to define this goal for myself, understand its dimensions, and chart a course to achieve it.
I will do this one day, but today is not that day.
Today, I am going to try to enjoy the present. I don’t care about five years later, “me”; I only care about the present version of me. And “she” deserves my complete attention.