I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently to groups of job-seeking professionals (one reason I’ve been MIA on the internet for two weeks), and predictably I tend to get questions about dealing with job interview anxiety.
But if I get the chance to explore the issue more deeply with people, I often find that they’re not really interested in reducing their anxiety. Instead, they want to convince the interviewer they aren’t anxious.
I usually discover this when someone asks a question about interview anxiety, and I respond with some ideas from meditation and yoga, like bringing your attention into the body, noticing where you’re restricting your breathing, and so on. They then give me a puzzled look, and say “but don’t you have any practical advice?”
When I ask what they mean by practical advice, they’ll reply “you know, things like how I should spin bad stuff on my resume, how long I should spend answering a question,” and so on. In other words, what they really want to know is how to look like a confident, competent person. Their own feelings aren’t important — only the interviewer’s view of them matters.
Image Obsession Creates Anxiety
I think this attitude is in keeping with the conventional wisdom in our culture. For any situation in life involving “selling yourself” — marketing, interviewing for jobs, dating, or something else — most advice out there is about “making” people have the “right” thoughts and feelings about you.
The trouble is, in my experience, this attitude is actually a big source of anxiety. The more deeply we’re concerned about our image, the more scary and exhausting relating with people becomes.
For example, suppose you went into a job interview having memorized ten questions you’re “supposed” to ask, five “confident body language” tips, seven “interview mistakes” to avoid, and so on. Wouldn’t trying to remember and follow all these rules create stress for you?
But that’s not all — suppose you also went into the interview believing that “how I feel doesn’t matter — only this interviewer’s feelings about me are important.” In other words, your sense of self-worth is riding on the interviewer’s opinion of you. Don’t you think that might cause some freak-out as well?
What Do You Want?
So, if memorizing a lot of interviewing tips and obsessing over your image isn’t the key to overcoming interview anxiety, what is? I think all the techniques I usually talk about regarding breathing, focusing your attention, and so on are wonderful, but here’s an even more basic starting point: try focusing on what you feel and want.
That is, instead of going into the interview worrying about what the interviewer will think, see if you can get curious about questions like: is this job in keeping with my career goals? Does this seem like the kind of working environment I’d enjoy? What would I need to know to feel comfortable taking this job?
If you’re in the job market, one thing I think you’ll immediately notice about this attitude is that it actually allows you to have an informative, and even enjoyable, dialogue with the interviewer. Focusing on what you want out of the job helps you to ask questions you’re actually curious about, rather than parroting canned questions from some interviewing book that don’t really matter to you.
Although I’ve been talking about job interviewing, I think the attitude I’ve discussed is useful for any “selling yourself” situation. I’ve found that focusing on our own wants and feelings, rather than getting caught up in strategies for manipulating others’ experience, can help make these situations easier to endure, and maybe even fun.
“I teach people how to use mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, to focus while they work. I help them bring these practices into their in-the-moment experience of working — to go beyond just using them on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion.”
This is a correct description of what I do. Unfortunately, it also tends to make people’s eyes roll and/or glaze over.
I know this all too well, because I delivered this “elevator pitch” many times. What’s more, for many months, I kept describing what I do in this way, even though I knew it was boring and confusing people.
Why did I keep saying this to people, despite its obvious soporific effect? The answer is that lots of resistance came up inside when I thought about changing it. Because I found the resistance uncomfortable, I left my pitch unchanged so I wouldn’t have to feel it.
Welcoming My Resistance
I finally started getting traction around this issue when I decided to re-read my book and take my own medicine. Rather than fleeing from the resistance, I chose to sit with it. I got intimately familiar with its contours — where I felt it in my body, whether it manifested as a tingling, pulsing, tension, or something else, and so on.
As I’ve experienced so many times, putting my full attention on the tightness in my body actually dissolved it. My solar plexus, where the most tension was, relaxed, and I sighed with relief. And, as usual, with that relaxation came helpful insight. What I saw was that I was clinging to this dull description of my services because, in my mind, it made me sound intelligent and unique.
After all, even if people didn’t buy my book or take my workshop, at least they wouldn’t see me as just another rah-rah jump-up-and-down-to-”Simply-The-Best” motivational speaker. At least they’d know I don’t spout self-help cliches like “take action! Think happy thoughts! Like attracts like!” You see, I use sophisticated words like “mindfulness,” and that makes me different!
In other words, I recognized through self-exploration that I was afraid of looking average — and, most importantly, that I was allowing that fear to control my business decisions. I was letting concerns about my image get in the way of actually delivering value to people.
Allowing My Averageness
Getting conscious of this fear also helped to liberate me from it. After all, I realized, what’s really going to happen if someone sees me as average? Will I disintegrate or spontaneously combust or something? Probably not.
What’s more, I recognized that, no matter what I accomplish, there are many ways in which I’m forever doomed to be average. Studies have shown, for example, that I share approximately 99.999999% of my DNA not only with you, Dear Readers, but also with orangutans and mandrills. Why go to such lengths to conceal my built-in averageness?
Armed with this new awareness, I came up with a much more clear and concise summary of what I do. It goes a little something like this:
“I help people get focused and motivated at work.”
I’ve noticed that this produces a lot less nodding off, and a lot more purchasing of my stuff, among potential customers.
What about you, Dear Reader? How are you letting image-consciousness get in the way of giving your gifts to the world?