I'm at Starbucks, having a latte with Rhonda, rehashing what I've come to think of as my "in Convenience": The intervention that Rhonda and a few others staged to rescue me from Lotto-Donut-Pizza. It's been more than a month since I had a corn dog - or a canker sore. So I've made it through detox, and now Rhonda tells me that I'm really in luck. I have experienced Human Synergy, Rhonda's phrase du jour. Human Synergy, she explains, is the business equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary in a tortilla.
In my case, Human Synergy comes in the shape of a guy named Spud, founder of PotatoWare, a software company thought to be particularly cutting-edge. For one thing, Rhonda assures me, PW "lacks product" - and unproduct equals unlimited possibility. For another, Spud has a trademark dress code: He always wears his pair of orange Chuck Taylor high-tops. I too have a pair of Chuck Taylors - banana yellow, to be specific - which is why Spud approached me after the intervention and said, "Why don't you stop by next week? I might have something. And, hey, nice Chucks."
Rhonda says that Spud's commenting on the shoes was crucial. "It's the secret language of job interviews," she says. "He didn't have to mention the shoes. And he didn't say, 'Nice sneakers.' He said, 'Nice Chucks.' And you didn't ask, 'Who's Chuck?' "
"Yeah," I say. "By the way, who is Chuck?"
For a week or two after the intervention, I was happy. I had an Interview. I was back in high school at prom time. Saying you were going to the prom was always better than the prom itself, which required you to wear uncomfortable clothes and talk for hours in a dark gym.
At last, the pregame jitters set in. I start to gnaw on my knuckles - a good sign. What if I don't get this job? What if Spud just likes me for my Chucks? What will we talk about? Should I stand up and announce, "I'm more than my shoes!"? And if I am more than my shoes, what exactly am I?
"The less you talk about what you'll actually do, the better," says Rhonda. "It's like Impressionism, only in the workplace."
"What do I wear? I can't wear banana-yellow Chucks with a suit."
"Why not? It shows you're confident. And it reminds him who you are."
"But if I wear yellow Chucks with a suit, he'll think the squirting red flower in the lapel comes next!"
Rhonda gets impatient. "It's not about the Chucks! It's about the attitude that wearing the Chucks conveys. You need to show him you're cool. God knows he's not gonna hire you because of what you can do. He's gonna hire you because you convince him that you're cool enough to make him look cool for hiring you."
Rhonda leans closer and peers at my neck. "Are those hives?"
"It's nerves! Job interviews are like beauty pageants. I never know what to say when they ask those unanswerable questions - like 'In six words or less, how would you achieve world peace?' "
"Spike the water supply," says Rhonda. "Four words. I have some cover-up you can use for the rash. Pick up some Clearasil too."
"I can't do this."
"Yes you can. People interview for jobs every day."
"Not the people who get jobs. The people who get jobs are lousy at interviewing. That's because they get no practice. If you're good at interviewing, it's because you've done it a lot, and if you've done it a lot, that means nobody's hiring you. So you want to be able to pull off an interview - but not too well, because you don't want the boss to think you've had too much practice. David Geffen is a terrible interview, I guarantee it."
"There's your recipe for success," says Rhonda. "Wear the Chucks, say nothing about the job itself, and pretend you're at a singles bar handing out the oldest line in the world: 'I never do this kind of thing, do you?' "
This is episode three of "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work. Next episode: The Curse of the Suck-Up. Stay tuned!
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.