For about two months in 2012, I attended, on average, three job interviews a week. If you want to find out how that particular unpleasantness happened, you can read it here.
My confidence was at an absolute and all-time low. I seemed to forever be the one the employer met just before they met The One. My experience working in recruitment made me just good enough at CV and Cover Letter writing that I could get interviews pretty easily, but something always seemed to go wrong in the room. I seemed to forever be opening my inbox to emails that began with "While it was a pleasure to meet you..."
Now that I'm gainfully employed in a job that I actually enjoy, it's easy for me to look back on my jobless self and feel sorry for her. I wanted everything too badly. I wanted, in that desperate, clammy way, for the interviewer to see through my experience and my answers and see me instead. I wanted them to see the girl that my parents thought was unstoppable.
"The thing about me, is that I want everything to be the best it can be," I told a Marketing Director when he asked me about my weaknesses. "So sometimes I work too hard and too long on things."
Lie. A total lie. The truth is that I am actually quite a quick worker, but often a sloppy one.
"So you're a perfectionist," he said, already bored.
"Yes," I said eagerly, thinking: I am really acing this.
"Tell me then: if a client is expecting a piece of work at 6pm on a Tuesday, and it's only 90% of the way done, what are you going to do?"
"Uhh...." I groped for an explanation. I had already agreed that I was a perfectionist. I couldn't just go back on it.
"I would manage expectations," I said smoothly. "And make sure the client understood that the work was on its way."
"Wrong," he said. "You send it over, because they pay us to deliver work on time."
I did not get the job.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who didn't get the job. It turns out, listing seemingly "positive" qualities – I'm a perfectionist, I try too hard to be liked, I say yes to everything – is a tactic so tired that it basically never works.
Investigating whether employers actually respond to self-promoting candidates, New York Times journalist Adam Grant realised that the majority aren't impressed by this common response. “If you were that great, you wouldn’t need to boast about your greatness," was the reply given by one employer.
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In a study of 107 countries, business school applicants were far more successful when they described themselves accurately rather than positively. In another study, only 23 per cent of Harvard students answered the question "What is your biggest weakness?" with actual negative qualities, such as "I procrastinate" or "I overreact to situations". The remaining 77 per cent decided to go for the classic humblebrag options: my favourite being "I'm too demanding when it comes to fairness."
So what are you supposed to do? Go into an interview with a list of reasons why you're lazy, inadequate, and likely to steal sandwiches from the office fridge? Well, no. Rather than list fake-negative humblebrag qualities, you should instead lead on your legitimately negative qualities, and then focus on their upside. When you're willing to own up to your bad side, suddenly your good side seems far more credible.
After my "perfectionist" disaster, I went into my next job interview determined to be honest. I think part of me was a little battle-weary, and tired of plastering a fake smile on. I went in, instead, as myself. The "weakness" question came up, as it always does, in some way or another. I thought about it.
"I can be too over-familiar," I said, carefully. "And I know it can come across as unprofessional, and I think I've crossed the line with employers without meaning to. It also means I make friends easily, but it can have drawbacks, too."
My new boss smiled. It was like hearing the click of the right key turning in the right lock. I wouldn't find out until later that day, but I had done it: and I didn't need to be a "perfectionist" to do it.