Lessons from a bad interviewee

I’ve had a lot of job interviews over the past five or six years. And I mean a lot. If you include phone interviews, I’m sure I’m well over 100. But I’ve had a ton of in-person interviews, as well.

And while I feel very good about landing the phone interview, and pretty good about nailing it, it feels like my record at in-person meetups is lacking. Mostly because only three interviews have ever turned into an offer.

One was for a freelance writing gig covering home remodeling, and I’m not sure how I landed that. I know nothing about that field, nor do I have any desire to. I politely turned down that offer.

But the other interviews I’ve had–both successful and otherwise–have been learning experiences. I’m terrible at learning something immediately. I have a tendency to over-think immediately after the interview. Or in some cases, I tend to get over-confident, then I get sad I don’t get the job. That usually leads to me lying on the floor, worrying about what I did wrong and what comes next.

Still, since I’ve had a lot of job interviews, I’ve had a lot opportunity to learn:

* One of the offers I turned down was for a startup that dealt with restaurants. They were looking for a part-time sales guy who could make calls and go to restaurants in a set part of San Francisco and talk to owners and managers. I can’t remember what the startup was focused on. I think it was similar to Yelp, but specialized entirely on restaurants and also allowed in-app ordering.

The CEO looked over my resume and asked me why I was at my first job (post-college) so briefly. I was blunt and said “I was fired.” He proceeded to critique my answer with “Never say you were fired. Say ‘it wasn’t a good fit’ or something of that sort. But never admit to being fired.”

Despite this, he gave me an offer. And when I got home, I had no problem rejecting it. Most people I know who disapprove of straightforwardness are folks I have no desire to work for (or have worked for and hated it). I learned that some people strongly prefer the political answer over the honest one, even if the honest answer is obvious.

* The other offer I received was for a job similar to my then-current one. I would have focused on an even more specific niche, and I’d have been much more independent than I am now. Both aspects sounded great!

I learned quickly that sometimes a company needs to fill a spot so badly that they’ll try to on-board you without actually confirming whether or not you want the job.

did want the job at first. It seemed like a great evolution of what I was doing. But I was given no time to ask questions in either interview. And the idea of on-boarding without as much as a verbal confirmation left a sour taste in my mouth. I said “no” and I’ve never regretted it, even though others seemed to think I was crazy for passing.

* I scored an interview with the American branch of a major Japanese video game company. It was for a community manager position. I had been freelance writing for a year and a half (minus the three months I was in the job that fired me), and I had absolutely no social media/community management experience. Yet, I found myself sitting in their American headquarters, interviewing for a job I had no business pursuing. And I like to think I did well. I still look back on it as one of the best interviews I’ve ever had. They ultimately went with another (more experienced) hire, but this experience taught me one of my most important lessons: Good ideas can make up for a lack of qualification. They may not guarantee you the job, but they will get someone’s attention.

* I had an interview at a startup, so I decided a pro-wrestling t-shirt and khakis (my style at the time) would be the best outfit. Initially, I got some weird looks from the interviewer (who was in a blouse and jeans). I’m sure there was many reasons why I didn’t get that job (I was underqualified for that one, too), but I did learn that sometimes being yourself isn’t going to leave a great first impression. (Especially if “yourself” doesn’t know how to do the job)

* There’s a company who has stores that are virtually identical to the one I worked at. And their headquarters were local, so I figured it was an obvious choice to try to jump on board.

I found an office job that seemed right up my alley. I interviewed on the phone and it went well. Then I did an video interview, and it went well…until the interviewer told me she thought I’d be a better fit for a different role.

I went through the next process, only to find out I was interviewing for a store-level job–the same job I was doing already. It took the wind out of my sails and I didn’t get the offer, despite giving what I thought was my best interview ever (except maybe the first one I bragged about earlier).

A few weeks later, I had my learning moment. I happened to come across the CEO, who looked oddly familiar to me and I suppose I seemed familiar to him. He recognized me both from my GMail picture and from a list of ideas I sent him previously. He arranged another interview for what was ultimately another store position. This time, there was more of a mutual “neither of use really want this” feeling, but I came away learning that sometimes you get rewarded for putting yourself out there, even if it’s delayed.

* I had an interview for a customer support role with a company that’s known for distributing anime. I thought it was a pretty good interview, though I didn’t get the job. What I remember most is riding the elevator with two women who worked there. If I knew I wasn’t going to get the job, maybe I’d have asked one of them out. do find anime fans attractive for some reason (not that I’ve watched many Japanese cartoons myself over the past five years).

* Near the end of my freelance video game writing era, I managed to score an interview with one of the biggest video game news/review websites (I assume it’s still either #1 or #2), for an editor position. The editor-in-chief gave me a call when he was on vacation and I was on my lunch break at work.

And it turned out to be perhaps the worst high-stakes interview I’ve ever given. The part that threw me off the most was when I was asked about “non-video game interests”. I should have blurted out “just a hell of a lot of pro wrestling!” Instead, I decided it was a good idea to try to sound intelligent.

I told him “I like to read.” That wasn’t a lie.

The editor followed up with, “What have you been reading?”

The correct answer at that would have been “A lot of different things. I like to poke around with self-help books. But I also enjoy how-to books, biographies, and some fantasy novels. I like to cast a wide net.”

Instead, I gave some sort of convoluted answer about some sort of non-fiction book I downloaded from the public library’s ebook collection but never actually read. It had something to do with dogs. I can’t remember what. I hardly knew what It was when I downloaded it.

Everything from that point on got progressively worse.

I learned something that has been of the utmost importance in my interviews since: Be honest and be yourself. Who cares if that seems dumb?

And maybe I am a little dumb.

There are plenty of other interviews I’ve had. Some where I definitely said something dumb. Others where the fit just wasn’t there for either side. And even others where I got too attached to the idea of a job and got my heart broken.

Failure sucks. It always does and never won’t. But if I can learn one thing from each of these failures, and I can use it to get a little bit better, I’ll be okay with it.