Your alarm bell rings. You open your eyes: a half-smile still on your face, fondly remembering last night’s dream. As you delight in the warm and comfortable feeling of your bed, suddenly a jolt of energy rushes through your body. Your heart sinks – just a little bit, and your previously sleepy brain springs into action: interview day. It’s interview day. Like a computer simulation your brain starts running amok, calculating the odds of every possible bad answer you could give and imagining – quite vividly – all the things that could go wrong. You could freeze. You could blank. The interviewer might think you’re a fool. He might hate you. You could stumble and fall. You could even forget your own name.
Yes, there is something quite unnerving for most everyone when it comes to interviews. The sheer thought of having to answer questions about yourself, your experience and your life tends to leave a foul taste in a lot of people’s mouths. We’ve all been there. Clear as day, I remember the last time I attended an interview: being overly punctual as I tend to be, I nervously walked up and down the street, continuously whispering to myself under my own breath “You’ve got this. You’re good at what you’re doing. If they don’t see that, they are not the right fit for you. You’ve got this.” If anyone had observed me, they would have thought I was absolutely bonkers: with a straight posture walking fifty metres to the left, abruptly turning around, walking fifty metres to the right, turning around again, consistently babbling away with no one close to be seen.
In the end I was saved by the kindness of a stranger. I never got to thank her. A lady, innocently pushing her pram along the sidewalk stopped right in front of me, looked me up and down and said: “Excuse me. I am sorry but I wish I had your outfit. You look fantastic.” Wow. Little did she know that her words gave me that little confidence boost I needed to enter the building. With butterflies dancing up and down my tummy, a – probably slightly forced – smile on my lips, I walked towards reception, and courteously asked for the person whose name I had committed to my memory as well as possible. The receptionist, a lovely lady with an even lovelier demeanour, called his number to announce my arrival. And, of course, being the least opportune time, that was the moment my bladder started sending red light alerts. How long would the interview last? Would I be able to sit through it – confidently – without a prior beeline to the bathroom? Now, if you ever have been in a situation in which you had to go to the bathroom but there was no bathroom in sight, you would be well familiar with the pain and agony of such dilemma. Remembering how I felt the time I sat on a bus in Egypt, three coffees and 1.5 litres of water urgently trying to be released and no bathroom stop scheduled for the next hour, I decided for a last minute fresh-up (and of course, took the opportunity to engage in some deep breathing and some more motivational cheerleading for myself).
Once revived, it was time to meet the challenge. The receptionist led me up the stairs – stairs that seemed to go on forever. I was curious about the people I passed on the way: would they be my new colleagues? How would I get along with them? What would they be like? After an endless left-right-left through corridors and past offices, we finally reached our destination and stopped in front of a heavy door: the door of the organisation’s president. I very briefly closed my eyes in a concerted last-minute effort when said door opened. With a deep breath-in I stepped over that little threshold and then… and then something magical happened. I knew that – either way – I had this: I had prepared as well as possible; I knew what the company stood for; I knew what they wanted to achieve moving forward and I was well familiar with the interviewer’s history, vision and view of the world (thank you Google and YouTube!). I also knew that the best thing I had to offer was me: my personality, my skills, my experiences and my attitudes and beliefs. This in mind, I realised that this simply was an opportunity then for the two of us to ascertain if we were a mutual match. A bit like a first date, really, where you both make a snap decision about liking or disliking the other person and agree to go on a second date (or not). I had a say in this, too. Yes, it would hurt if there was rejection, but my life didn’t depend on it.
Once my previous black-and-white view had changed to a more radiant, fluid and colourful picture, I eased up and into the conversation. It was a good conversation. Certainly, there were things I could have expressed better and more clearly: I probably laughed too loudly, stumbled here and there, was too honest and too opinionated at times, but I was what I was best: me. Not perfect, not polished to a fault and not trying to be someone I wasn’t: just me.
The result? Well, we seemed like a great fit in terms of vision and attitudes but couldn’t agree on the position itself. He needed me for something I wasn’t willing to give; something that went against my own career values at that time and that was not in line with where I saw myself going professionally. Yes, I was capable of doing the job he was offering but it wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. The position title and money were tempting but the day-to-day activities would not sustain my soul’s passions. I knew that. And I also knew that if I took the job nonetheless, I would not perform as efficiently and effectively as I would if my needs were met. I would function – at least temporarily – but it would take a mental and emotional, and eventually a physical, toll on me and subsequently the organisation. I had been there before.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I liked the company. I liked their vision, I liked their premises and, more importantly, I needed a job. I needed the money. Yet, after some toing and froing and with a slightly heavy heart, I politely declined; not though without emphasising my interest in the company and stating my hope to be considered for future positions that encompassed not only their but also my needs.
As I said “no” to something I would have said “yes” to previously, something else happened within me: a sense of pride and self-esteem emerged that had not been there before. I realised that as I said “no” to an objectively great offer that was subjectively not great for me, I said “yes” to myself. I was clear on my values, I was clear on my aspirations and I was clear on my skills, competencies and potential for contribution. I knew that any kind of interview was not only an opportunity for the company to meet me, but also an opportunity for me to meet the company. Most importantly, I was clear on the next step on my path and as hard as it was, I didn’t let a shiny temptation lead me astray.
It took some more time, patience and faith, but eventually I found a job that sustained my spirits: developing people in lifestyle and career skills, including interviewing techniques and career aspirations and strategies. Every day, I sit in one of the offices I walked past that day, next to the people I wondered about, working towards the institution’s vision that I aligned myself with so much, asking soon to be MBA graduates:
- What are you passionate about?
- What are the most important aspects to you in a career?
- What do you stand for?
- What’s holding you back from realising the life and career you’re dreaming of?
- What are you willing to do to not only get a job but also find a fulfilling career?
- Do you think the job you’re applying for will lead you towards or away from these aspects?
And I give these students similar advice I gave myself: an interview is a mutual opportunity. Only you know what’s best for you. You know your value. You know your experience. You know what you stand for. You know how your values align with those of the company and if it’s a good match. You know if the job is right for you. You’ve got this.