J. asked me today how on earth she was supposed to do well on interviews when she felt so beaten down in her current job.  Her self-esteem was in the toilet. Her boss criticized practically everything she does so she has difficulty remembering her competence. And going to work every day – well, it was plain depressing.

So how on earth could she present herself well in an interview?

I understood exactly what she was talking about. In my several job searches, I always said: At the very moment I feel terrible about myself, I have to present myself as if I were the greatest thing since sliced bread.

This is the paradox of job search. Job searches usually begin when you have lost a job or hate your current one. Neither are happy circumstances. Yet, to get a new job, you need to show a prospective employer that you have the competence and confidence they seek.

Since I always succeeded – eventually – in finding a great job for myself, here’s how I did it and how other people manage to do well in interviews even at their lowest point.

1. Know your skills, talents and abilities inside-out. This is the core of what I teach people who are looking for their “right fit” job.  By going back over your history – in work, school and personal life – you can identify those abilities you have always used, the kinds of activities toward which you always gravitate, and the projects you enjoy doing. You also can identify those things other people come to you for – advice or help on specific problems, to join a team, to do something for them. For example, using the tools I’ve developed, M. and I identified that in all his jobs, he ended up doing research and helping people – whether it was friends, kids he taught or lawyers for whom he worked – with their research – fact checking, original research, research plans, finding sources, etc.  He was also an excellent editor. Using these key words to search job databases for jobs that used his skills, M. realized he was well-suited for library science. And through networking, he landed a job as the Director of a research library.

2. Accept that you really are competent. Because you are. You may not be as good at something as you want to be.  That doesn’t mean you aren’t able to have an impact and make a difference. When I work with people on their resumes, I ask the “so what?” question about all their activities.  People know what they do every day, yet rarely do people ask “so what happened because I did this?” or “what difference does it make that I – or anyone – does this?” It doesn’t matter if anyone else could do it. The fact is that you are doing it. And that’s all that matters.  You are having some kind of impact. For example, E. was in charge of office supplies. It was hard for her to identify any impact related to it. After asking a number of questions, we realized that her system of ordering and tracking supplies kept the supply cost lower than the supply budget, thereby saving her company money. This is a real impact: “saved company $thousand in supply costs by creating a tracking and inventory system.” That sounds much better than “ordered supplies and maintained inventory,” her original piece.

3. Separate your abilities from your current job.  This is critically important.  Because you do have abilities, accomplishments, impact – whether you think your boss would agree or not.  Looking at your history, you can clearly see that you are capable. If you weren’t doing most things right, you would have been fired already. Some people just need to criticize. It has nothing to do with you. It’s their thing.

This is the heart of “don’t take it personally,” a saying I really dislike because it’s usually said to discount someone’s feelings. Your feelings do matter, it’s just that they are not facts.  I am consistently myself, and some people like me and others don’t.  Ergo, I realize that other people bring themselves and their attitudes and history to every encounter with me.  One boss thinks I’m grand, while another finds fault with everything. Who am I going to believe? Neither! I don’t make anyone behave a certain way. Nor do they have the power to make me feel bad about myself and my abilities, unless I let them.

You can feel criticized and then step back from it to ask “is what I did so horrible?” Generally, your error or shortfall is minor. So why does a boss make it a big deal? Who knows why? The point is that you get to step back and say “there he or she goes again, having to feel good at my expense.” I find that when I expect someone to behave differently than they always have, I am going to be disappointed.  If your boss always criticizes you, expect them to criticize you. And be pleasantly surprised when they don’t.

4.   Stop looking outside of yourself for approbation and compliments.  I like to ask “have I done my best?” If you have, then you may find some comfort in a saying I heard long ago – which made no sense to me then, but does now: “You know you are doing something right when others criticize you.” Huh? What that means to me is that

  • Number one, I have done something instead of just talking about it.
  • Number two, what I’ve done has been noticed.
  • Number three, someone else wants to put their stamp on it. That may mean it’s pretty good.

My mom told me that in advertising, there’s a saying “the greatest human urge isn’t to procreate, it’s to change someone else’s copy.” If you didn’t write something, no one could change it. I now am flattered instead of feeling criticized when someone wants to change my copy – or complain that I didn’t think of x, y or z. I thought of enough to jog your memory. About the exact same thing, some people would say “great list! can we add this?” while others would say “you forgot this, how could you?”  I choose to take anyone’s comments in the spirit of the first – that they were inspired by what I did even if they can’t express themselves nicely.

Of course, if I haven’t done my best, then I need to own it and look at how I can do better. Ultimately, I work for myself and my own sense of accomplishment.

5.  “Don’t change so people like you. Be yourself and the right people will love the real you.” Or at least hire the real you.

My experience is that when I claimed my competence and stopped depending on other people to make me feel good about myself, I started to do better in interviews. I knew what I was good at and that confidence projected itself into interviews.

How have you learned to do well in interviews when you don’t feel at the top of your game?