How I smashed my first Career Interview
And Why I Nearly Turned It Down
The most successful job interview I ever had was for a job I didn’t want.
I was two and a half years into a relationship that would limp along for another twelve months. The job wasn’t really about the job, but a way out from, or forward in, a relationship that was going nowhere. We saw each other Wednesdays and weekends; he wouldn’t commit to more. If my relationship was a bank account, the return on investment was so appalling, I would’ve closed the account months ago.
My friends saw the change in me — from a bouncing Tigger to a subdued young woman whose enthusiasm had been dampened by someone who behaved as though he’d rather date the women his head was craning down the street to take a second glance at than me. Yet, he wouldn’t let me go. I told him I wasn’t happy and wanted to end it. He convinced himself that I was just moaning and it’d blow over soon enough.
Then, one evening as we were talking, he said, “…Being a single bloke…” I didn’t hear the rest of what he uttered. I was too busy thinking I’d put my career on hold, staying in a town that held few opportunities in my field, because of my relationship with him and I was looking after my mother’s house (she’d bought a house in a derelict state, expected me to renovate it and relocated to the States). I’d allowed myself to be put upon by too many people, too many times.
My mother had said she wanted to buy a house for me to live in, which would also be a retirement investment. We went house hunting together, until I guess she decided I was being too picky. The day before she flew out to live in America, she told me she’d bought a house and drove me to view it. She’d bought a terraced house — the toilet was outside, no hot water or central heating (the boiler was condemned), the electricity was so old it had 2 pin sockets (not the standard 3) and the kitchen extension was coming away from the living room.
It was 1988; she’d decided it was OK for me to live in uninhabitable conditions and when I said I wasn’t going to look after it, she said in a ‘helpless’ voice, “Who else is going to do it?” My older siblings had children and so, it was expected that I’d take this project on. So, out of filial duty aged 18 I gave up my bed-sit and moved into substandard housing. I dealt with builders and renovation grants in between college and cannabis and turned her £10,000 dilapidated investment into a £30,000 (priced for a quick sale) house that sold within days, after I played hardball with the estate agent.
I started to put myself first once I’d heard, let’s call him Mike, say that he didn’t consider himself to be in a relationship. I was determined to apply for the next job I saw advertised. New Zealand, Australia or the other side of the country, I was ready to go all in and nothing was going to hold me back. You see, while I was at university, I did part time jobs that fit around my studying. But once I’d left, I found part time work supporting Deaf students “signing” for them in classes. The hourly rate was good, but the contracts were casual, term-time only, so I spent the summer holidays pulling pints in working mens clubs.
Soon after I’d made up my mind, I saw not one opportunity, but two. My friend at the local university was going on maternity leave and I was encouraged to apply for her maternity-cover post. I already provided communication support there for Deaf students, I’d studied my degree there, so it was familiar territory. I was excited. The other vacancy was a full-time post at a college just under 2 hours away. I submitted my application form to both and waited to see if I was invited for interview for either post.
I was! Unfortunately, the interview date for both posts clashed: 15th December 1997. I had to confirm which interview I would attend. The ideal would be to stay local, but that post was only temporary, so I’d be back to doing casual work. I drove over to Sheffield and was totally underwhelmed by the city. I travelled in through the areas where industry once thrived; the landscape looked pretty bleak. It looked like my hometown, but on a grander scale.
Here’s what I learned through the experience:
Preparation is Key
I spent time gathering intelligence about the organisation and I discovered I knew someone who used to work there, so we chatted over coffee. I made sure my application addressed the person specification criteria: my answers depended on whether a skill or attitude was essential or desirable, and if it was demonstrated at application stage or during interview. If I didn’t possess a requirement, I could show a willingness to develop or acquire it within a given timeframe, if it was necessary to undertake the role.
I used the job description, the role and duties as a framework to write about my experiences. I wanted to make the interviewers’ job of scoring easy and that, for me, meant being clear and submitting a well written application.
I treated it as a practice run for a future post that I really wanted
In retrospect, after being involved in all aspects of the recruitment and selection process — liaising with Human Resources, recruitment freezes, lead in times, advertising deadlines, synchronising diaries to convene interview panels, I’d have been p*ssed knowing we were interviewing someone who didn’t want the job. For that reason, my personal policy throughout my career was that I’d only write a reference if asked to be a referee, and if the applicant had accepted the position. That was time I could allocate elsewhere.
Because I didn’t want the job, I had no attachment to the outcome
But this wasn’t about the job, it was about testing my relationship. It was my make or break move. It would’ve been simpler to tell him it was over, but that obviously hadn’t worked!
Because I had no attachment to the outcome, I performed better
From the application I wrote to the interview I gave, I was totally relaxed, which meant I could answer every question I was asked. If I desperately wanted the job or needed the job, the outcome would’ve been different. My mind would’ve gone blank and I’d have struggled to articulate the knowledge I’d gained through my casual work. I was bold and confident in my responses. It worked.
If you find yourself starting to panic, you can:
- take your awareness to your breath and focus on inhaling for a count of six (allowing your stomach to expand) and exhaling for a count of six (allowing your stomach to retract). If everything is riding on this job, you’re going to feel stressed. This practice will give you control over your nervous system and you’ll feel calmer.
- Ask for a glass of water, or if the glass is already there, you can ask “Do you mind if I just take a sip of water?”
- Ask the interviewers to repeat the question.
- Just be honest and say that you’re feeling nervous. They’ve been in your shoes and someone on the panel is likely to empathise. They want to see candidate performing at their best, so it’s in their interests to create the right environment (unless the job is about how well candidates cope under stress and it’s assessed at interview!)
- before the interview practice looking at an imaginary spot at eye level, then slowly widen your gaze to the left of the imaginary spot, to the right of it, above it and below the spot. All the while maining your focus on the imaginary spot. You’re engaging both your foveal vision (looking ahead) and your peripheral vision (widened gaze). That’s engaging both the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of your [autonomous] nervous system, respectively. This practice goes by a few different names, including the optimal learning state. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can look at a person without staring them out, so you can make eye contact with all panel members. Use this state when you’re learning facts and engage it again when you want to recall them.
Looks can be deceiving; mindset is everything
I didn’t expect to get the job, as I was up against two men. One was well-spoken and had crafted his interpreting skills at a university that I rated as better than my own. What I didn’t know was that he allegedly had problems with alcoholism and wasn’t considered to be in the right mental state for the position. If I’d really wanted that job, that voice of doubt would have allowed that well-spoken candidate to mess with my mindset and I’d probably convince myself that the panel would appoint him over me.
It’s good to have other options available
To be honest, I was surprised when they offered me the job. I had intended to study for a PhD and was preparing my application at my local university. I asked if they’d consider a job-share, but was told the other candidate wasn’t open to job-sharing. I needed time to decide if I really wanted to relocate, put my love for research on hold and take up a full-time position. It helps to take the ‘perceived’ pressure off if you the job you’re interviewing for doesn’t turn out the way you hope.
Ask for feedback
It’s always worth asking for feedback whether you’re offered the post or, if you get an “Unfortunately, on this occasion, you were unsuccessful.” You may just receive a hackneyed, “The best candidate on the day was offered the job,” or constructive feedback that will help you with your next job interview. Many companies now don’t even acknowledge your application because they receive so many. If you get it, take it. If not, there’s nothing to stop you doing some self-reflection through journaling, for example.
I accepted the job and it was the start of my career, until I almost died two months into the job. Rushed into hospital, I was heading for emergency surgery an hour after I’d arrived in Accident and Emergency. Mike proved I couldn’t depend on him to take charge when I needed to be vulnerable. I was in the midst of an unplanned [ectopic] pregnancy with no friends or family around and his response was, “I haven’t got a car.”
He had a car; but it was too expensive for him to run. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and I’d have found one if my mates needed me, but this was “my man!” If I matched his efforts and enthusiasm, we’d be through.
I didn’t have time to focus on my disappointment; no sooner had the porter wheeled me onto the ward, as the doctors spoke to me, I heard one of them shout, “Quick! She’s going into shock!” A rubber glove wrapped tightly around my arm as a makeshift tourniquet and feeling like a puppet with an IV inserted into the back of each hand, they asked me to sign the consent form!
My sister came to see me the following day after driving 30 miles in the opposite direction to pick up Mick before heading across. I wanted someone who could take charge and tell me to focus on getting better. Instead, I was asking Mike how he was going to be there to support me and was he going to negotiate time off work to look after me?
A year later, it was over. It hit him hard. He proposed in one of his, ‘I’m finding it hard to let go’ phone calls, as casually as you’d ask “Do you want salt and vinegar [on your fish and chips]?” I declined.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Yes, when we were together, but we split up 6 months ago.”
He commented that I seemed to be taking the break up well. What he’d failed to recognise was that I was emotionally detaching while we were still dating. Each time he said he couldn’t be bothered to drive across to see me because it was too far — which was the same distance I’d driven after finishing work on a Friday evening to spend the weekend with him.
Years later, I’d occasionally see his sister out in a club and she’d ask me if I would go back out with her brother, Mike. That wasn’t going to happen, I mean, I’d moved on; why would I willingly go back? Actually, his sister fixed us up in the first place; playing matchmaker at a friend’s birthday bash. She told Mike that he should go out with me. I guess the signs that he needed others to spur him into action were there all along…