When Interviewing, Don’t Focus on Getting the Job

Years and years ago, when I was just out of college and finishing up an internship at the Puget Sound Business Journal, I was asked to take part in “hiring” my replacement for the role.  Now this wasn’t a paid position, mind you, but an internship at the Journal was still a coveted thing — and there were a ton of eager young professionals just finishing up school who were interested in applying for it.

So after weeding through perhaps 50-60 resumes (these were the days of ancient history, before e-mail submissions) and narrowing the pool down to a short list of the best candidates, it came down to two final applicants, a young man and a young woman.  And after one last interview between these two finalists, the job was absolutely the young woman’s to lose.  Until she blew it.

What did this young woman do that was such a turnoff?  And what can we learn from her mistake, even today, when talking about interviews for much more experienced. higher-paying positions?

Here’s what happened.  After we’d concluded the interview and were just about to usher her out the door as a formality, before offering her the job the next day, this young woman leaned forward at the table, deepening her voice in solemnity, and said “Do you mind if I say just one last final thing before I leave?  I want you to know that I’d give up everything else in my life right now for this opportunity — my other job, my volunteer work, my violin lessons.  This internship sounds incredible and I really, really want it more than anything.”

While it may surprise you, this last-minute statement of hers was the proverbial “kiss of death” in her candidacy.  It changed the entire energy of the hiring process in a heartbeat.  As my boss and I glanced at each other, we could immediately tell that both we’d changed our minds and were now highly uncomfortable at the thought of hiring somebody who seemed to want the role in question TOO much.  It was just a lousy little internship, after all, involving fetching coffee, filing papers, and every once in a while contributing to some internal projects in some small way.  The thought of somebody giving up everything else in their life to obtain it — or acting like it was on par with winning the lottery — gave us pause.  We didn’t want this person to take the job, after all, only to become horribly disillusioned with it.  Or to blame us for the rest of her life for not sticking with her music lessons and thereby failing to become a violin virtuoso!

So, in a nutshell, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about interviewing after all these years, it’s that the more desperate you act to land a particular position, the more likely it is that you’re going to push the hiring manager away.  Your eagerness to win the role will not only put a lot of unfair pressure on you to “perform” in the interview process, but could also, as demonstrated above, create a weird and uncomfortable energy for the person across the desk.  To you, sure, this may be the opportunity of a lifetime.  To them, though, it’s just a job.  And acting like it’s more than that — and that you’d sell your soul for the assignment in question — will undermine your candidacy.

The alternative strategy?

Don’t focus on getting the job, focus on understanding the job.

To whatever possible extent you can control it, try to take yourself out of the equation and concentrate your energy, instead, on gaining the deepest possible understanding of the needs, problems, challenges, and ideal vision of the person sitting across the desk from you.  If you can divert your focus in this direction, you’re almost always guaranteed to make a stronger impression.  Not only will you seem to be less emotionally attached to the outcome, which shows confidence, but you’ll also be putting your attention where it belongs — on the needs of your “customer” across the desk, and not on yourself, your financial needs, your insecurities, and your own performance.

So the moment you step into the hiring manager’s office, let go of the outcome.  Don’t make it about YOU landing the job at all costs.  Let your natural curiosity take over, instead, and try to foster a smart, value-added discussion about the needs of the employer and the specific problems they need somebody to solve.  Act if you’re there as an expert consultant, not as an anxious job seeker.  Listen closely to what they tell you.  Probe back with smart questions.  Test your assumptions about the role in question and restate key points you’ve heard to show you’re tracking the interviewer — and to make sure your understanding of the job’s purview is accurate.

At the end of the day, most managers aren’t going to hire the person who wants the job the most.  They’re going to hire the person who “gets it” and seems to have the best grasp of the specific responsibilities that need to be executed and challenges that need to be overcome.  So take every lick of nervous energy you may have, if you’re in transition, and try to channel it in this direction in your next interview.  Odds are that you’ll have a much more enjoyable time of things if you take the pressure off yourself to “ace” every question — and more importantly, you’ll help create the emotional dynamic most likely to maximize your chances of success!


4 Responses to “When Interviewing, Don’t Focus on Getting the Job”

  1. Candace: Great point — and my apologies, since the LAST thing I was trying to suggest is that a person seem “disinterested” in any way. If anything, I want them to seem “hyper-interested” in the job by listening closely to the interviewer, asking smart questions, and displaying an intense curiosity about the work that needs to be done. The nuance, though, is that I’m trying to get people to show interest in THE JOB ITSELF and what it involves — not just an interest in LANDING the job and earning a paycheck. Fine line, I realize, but thanks for helping make sure I clarify this to everybody. I’m definitely not advocating, in the slightest, that a person act disinterested, coy, or standoffish in any way. That approach doesn’t play well out there, for sure…

  2. My philosophy (for what it’s worth): It’s a fine line to walk – how do you express enthusiasm and passion without having it come off as desparation? You do it throughout the interview, and not as a “final” statement prior to leaving the interview…otherwise it likely will be. No matter your intention, message, wordsmithing, or body language the interviewer will not hear it as anything other than desparation.

    High Intention – Low Attachment. Leaving it all on the table is what it’s all about. She probably had a hiccup in her confidence level that led to her costly gaffe.

  3. Well said Matt, as always! I would just add that it is key to not interview in such a way that goes to the other extreme of coming across as disinterested in trying to not seem overly eager or desperate…there is definitely a middle ground of balance 🙂

  4. Matt,

    Words of wisdom for job seekers. It can be tough not to put to much energy into getting a position. It helps to remember that a job is a job and not the primary focus of your life.

    Warm Regards,


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