Waves of fear swept over me as I walked into the lobby: "I want this job. I need this job. No—I have to have this job."
Everything about the interview I was about to step into felt momentous, even the receptionist taking my name and motioning me toward a chair to wait my turn. I could feel the anxiety running through me as I hunkered down to worry some more. Waiting for the interview to start was agonizing, yet I dreaded the moment when I'd hear them call my name. "Is my work good enough? Will they like me? Will they offer me the job? Gah! What am I doing here? I feel like throwing up!"
Since then, I've learned to master some of that anxiety. Sure, I still feel some jitters whenever I interview for a big project. It’s not that the fear has gone away, it’s that I’m much better at recognizing what’s happening and putting myself on a course of action that keeps me from succumbing to fear altogether.
In fact, I now see fear more as a signal to take action than as a paralyzing force. If I don't, I know from experience how quickly it can take over. Here are a few of the concrete steps I take before and during a high-stakes job interview in order to make that anxiety work in my favor.
Sure, you know how to prepare for an interview. You figure out how best to talk about your experience, and you research the company and the role. But I've learned to think bigger-picture than that. As you prepare, focus most of your effort on learning why this opportunity is available in the first place and how it supports the company’s larger goals. That broader context can be crucial. Once you feel informed, you can present what you have to offer as the best solution for them—which can redirect some of your energy from fixating on why it's the best opportunity for you.
Poll friends, acquaintances, and coworkers to advise you on the organization and the opportunity. Ask for coffee dates, Skype sessions, emails, phone calls, and invitations to any event the prospective employer is hosting or attending. That might sound like a lot, but for "dream job" opportunities and organizations you're really passionate about, it's just what's required. Occasionally in my career, I’ve even started this process years before an actual position became available. I’ve learned that the more familiar I am with the organization’s culture, the less fearful I’ll be when the ideal opportunity finally does come around.
Chances are you have more skills and experiences than just the ones you've chosen to showcase on your resume. So make a list of everything you can offer that will be most helpful to the company where you're interviewing. Not everything you’ve accomplished will be relevant, but try to zero in on precisely what is, and note exactly how that might help them. The goal is to match your past with their future. I've found that making a list like this gives me confidence, even if I don’t end up drawing on it. It moves my credentials to the fore so I can remember them when my anxiety rises.
Know salary and fee ranges, and be prepared to ask for slightly more than the top of the range. (Also know your bottom line.) Be prepared to explain why you're worth what you’re asking for, even if you don’t feel that way. This conversation can be a source of major anxiety all by itself; we all suffer from a little (or a lot) of self-doubt when we’re asking for money. Expect that feeling, and ask for what you need to succeed for your own sake and theirs. In my experience, anyway, they always respect you more when you ask for top dollar and can explain why.
You may have achieved a lot, but nobody likes a braggart. Sometimes when you're feeling anxious before a big interview, you might overcompensate by feigning too much confidence. People like others who are genuine, grateful, and even a little humble. Express gratitude for the experiences you’ve had; share credit for your successes. This will encourage your interviewers to highlight your credentials for you, so you won't have to shout them—increasing your (genuine) confidence in the process.
You already know to ask thoughtful questions about the organization and the opportunity. But don’t forget to ask about each person you interview with to talk about themselves, too. That can take some of the nervous focus off yourself and give you some valuable insight in the process. Ask about their careers and how they came to the organization. Ask how their roles have evolved and what the future holds for them. The more they talk, the better they'll feel about you—and the better you’ll feel with the sense of control that line of questioning provides.
Taking action boosts your confidence and reduces fear. In fact, even if the action doesn’t result in your desired outcome, the action alone builds confidence. Each tiny action you take can create a boost in that direction, bit by bit.
Fortunately, all those years ago, I spent quite a bit of time in that crowded lobby, waiting for my high-stakes interview—long enough, actually, to see others come and go who seemed just as nervous as I was. There were salespeople texting furiously, other job candidates, and even what appeared to be a team from an ad agency nervously huddling in the opposite corner. It was long enough for me to calm down and remember that my credentials were strong; that the company had shown a preference for my work in earlier encounters; and that I was pretty well aware of what this company needed and how I could help deliver it.
When my name was called, I stood up and proudly shook my interviewer’s hand.
And yes, I got the gig.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace.