Interviewing for People With an Amygdala (That’s You)
Most job interviews are a far cry from the stock images we see showing fill-in-the young man or woman smiling confidently shaking the hand of the fill-in-the-boss character.
Hold up a moment, stock image. Where’s the flop sweat? What about the mascara hue the tissue missed from when she was pulling herself together and cleaning up after crying in the bathroom just five minutes before the meeting? Where’s the look of overwhelming terror on the face of our protagonist?
We’re a long way from “Veni, Vidi, Vici” – “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered”
Historians attribute the line to Julius Caesar, likely written on a chalkboard in the locker room where he inspired his football team to go win the championship after being down big at the half.
It’s possible I’m mixing my references.
Each aspect of the message gives us a pillar of success. First, show up ready for battle. Next, take stock of your surroundings and make adjustments. Third, click the safety off and charge the hill.
All three steps are necessary, but for now I want to focus in on the middle term (phrase when translated).
The Latin etymology for “Vidi” is the first-person active form of “Videō” (that word looks familiar), which in the context of the Julius Caesar quote translates to “I see”.
A more accurate translation is “I observe”.
Seeing and observing are vaguely synonymous, but the words have vastly different meanings in common usage. I see a whole lot of things every day. I observe far fewer.
What does this have to do with social skills? And where does the amygdala come in?
The amygdala is the section of the brain that houses the core of our survival instinct, and is the area of our brain that “reacts” to stimuli while the prefrontal cortex “processes” information.
Our amygdala also holds much of our memories and many of the triggers of our emotions.
Emotions like anxiety.
I’ve spent enough time in therapy to know how crippling anxiety can be. My larger problems have been with major depression, but anxiety has been a fun tagalong.
Anxiety is our brain warning us about danger. This can come in really handy when you’re early man out in the bush dodging sabretooth tigers. It’s a little less helpful when it’s waking you up in a panic because you’re late for your Econ final… six years after you graduated college.
So what’s the difference between us and Julius Caesar? That answer is easy, especially when you read his works and the works of fellow Greco-Romans like Cato, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
The Age of Anxiety vs. The Age of Stoicism
The names above are the MonStars of the stoic class. From a philosophical standpoint they were the prophets of mental control, of separating yourself from your emotions, and of gracious acceptance of the wills of the fates.
They had no clue at the time, but they were flying the flag of the prefrontal cortex and bombarding the everloving hell out of the amygdala.
I don’t subscribe to all of the philosophical pillars of stoicism. There’s one that I most certainly do believe in, though, and it could be the shot in the arm we’ve been needing in our modern anxious age:
Seeing. Observing. Processing. Understanding.
Most of our modern social interactions go something like this: Event, Feeling, Reaction, Feeling, Reaction, Feeling, Reaction etc.
Something happens, we feel something about it, and we react based on that feeling.
There’s Veni (the arrival/event), then some pedal-to-the-metal shot right past Vidi (observation & assessment) right to some flailing attempt at Vici (the action/conquest). And most of those attempts turn out to not be very effective.
That middle step of seeing is imperative to making Vici, conquering, more likely. This concept holds when you’re arriving at a networking event just as well as fighting the Battle of Zela.
Part of this seeing is in observation through preparation:
If you have an interview with a company coming, research them. Find out who you’ll be interviewing with and learn their professional history. Look up peers of yours who work for that company. Take them out to coffee and ask them about the company culture and any insider tips on how to present yourself as a good fit.
Get ambitious and search for e-mail addresses for the company’s C-Suite. Reach out to one of them explaining that you’re preparing to interview for the company, and ask how it is that you can show in the interview the ways you will add value to the company. If someone that high-up in the company sends you a message back then you’ve already gotten a big leg up on the interview.
The other part of this seeing is in observation through attentiveness:
This part is in-the-moment. Feel the environment as you walk into the building.
Does the space have a relaxed and collaborative vibe, with open spaces and Nerf guns and employees wearing their local sportsball team gear? (P.S. – your sportsball team sucks and my sportsball team is the best)
Or is the space crisp and detailed with sharp corners and bright lights, pressed suits and ambition on the faces you pass by? Some of this information should have come up in prep, but a real determination of whether or not you can assimilate to the culture starts at the front door.
Then you enter the dragon/interview room. There’s plenty to be said for the nuance of handshakes, eye contact, body language, etc., but those items are for another day. Let’s focus here on the more explicit information that comes to you and how it should be processed.
Who are you interviewing with? Are they in the same position or department that you will be working in should you decide to take the position? Do they get excited about the topics that come up when discussing the responsibilities of the job? Or do they lean in when you tell stories of the recent trip you took out to the Rockies?
These details tell you a lot about how to handle yourself throughout the interview, but they also share information about the company. This is a representative that they trust to evaluate who will participate in the future of the company. They’ll give you plenty of information on how to proceed. You just need to pay enough attention to pick up on it.
Taming the Squirrel
A bright, cool morning. Sunshine breaks through the trees. In a word: serenity.
We find ourselves at a crossroads. Or, rather, just a road. What lies across the pavement? Greener grass, presumably. Maybe it’s just the end of the day.
Regardless, the other side is calling and we must go.
Or maybe not. We’ll just sit here for a minute and think about it. Maybe five minutes. What were we supposed to be doing? I can’t really remember.
Let’s just get this over with. You go first. I’ll follow
You step out and start your way across the road. All’s well for a bit. Just scurrying from A to B, folks.
Then suddenly things aren’t well. Something’s coming, and it’s big.
The leviathan approaches. It’s a got’ damn 2003 Toyota Camry.
Panic sets in. What now? Go forward? Backward? Forward again? More backward but a little to the side? Maybe we just lay down and pray for squirrel-Zeus to rain down lighting from above. Not sure how that’ll help but desperate times, you know?
You turn. Stand. Face the monster. Then you make your move.
And scene. That’s right. Cliffhanger.
I’m not sure I’ll submit for a Pulitzer, but hey at least we had some fun.
Just Keep Going
Most of us have yelled through our windshield at some rodent to “just keep going.” If they would just keep on running the same direction they’d get to the other side with plenty of time to spare. They rarely ever do though, and we end up squirming in our drivers seat and praying to squirrel-Zeus that we don’t feel the *bump bump* as we pass them.
Ever found yourself on the other side of that? I mean hopefully you don’t spend a ton of time running out into high-speed traffic. Even just getting across the front drive of the parking lot to get into Target, though. You set out for a step, clam up, stop, look back, wait for someone else to make the decision for you, look at the driver (who is getting progressively more frustrated), and then you either move forward or you don’t.
That’s your survival instinct. It’s your amygdala. It’s trying to keep you safe, but it’s trying a little too hard and it’s making things worse.
You need to tame the squirrel brain. Let your prefrontal cortex to take over. Assess the situation thoroughly and then keep moving forward.
Look both ways, make eye contact with the driver of the car, confirm they notice you and have the room to slow down, step out confidently and deliberately, smile and acknowledge the driver not because it makes the process faster but because you want to develop into someone who lives with more gratitude and kindness, pass the big red concrete balls and then voila – you’re in Target.
The ability for us to process information and act decisively to this extent is a uniquely human capability. I’m not talking about memory (shoutout ravens). No, I’m talking about understanding the interplay of our surroundings. I’m talking about the ability to not only see, but to observe, to process, and to understand the visible and invisible factors at play in our environment. Instinct is universal. The ability to override instinct is extraordinary.
Interactions between humans are complex. There’s nuance in the words chosen, tone of voice used, posture, even the color of the shirt you’re wearing. What plays to your advantage in one situation may be a deal-breaker in another.
All this to say: it can be a wild world out there. Things are never going to go exactly how you predict. The best way to not get hurt is to not show up.
That’s not an option for us though.
Show Up Prepared
We’re going to show up because we’re going after something more than what we have now. We believe that there is fulfillment to be had and contribution to be made. We believe that we’re worth something, and that the world is worth having our best.
So show up, but show up prepared to fight for that something more. Have a plan, and have a plan to adjust that plan when things play out different than you predicted. Pay attention to your surroundings. Use them to your advantage. See. Observe.
Get To Work: Action Items
Search for opportunities for professional engagement. No, seriously, right now. If you’re not in an interview season you should still be expanding your professional circle. Google networking events in your area. Look up local chapters of professional societies in your industry. Check the bulletin board at your office and sign up for events you’d typically not give a second thought to. Call someone you’ve wanted to learn more about. Make a plan to get coffee or kombucha. Then show up.
Prepare yourself for the event. You know the line between researching and stalking (if you don’t then reach out and we can help you find that line). Familiarize yourself with the person or organization you’re stepping into an interaction with so you can have a more pleasant first go. Develop good and genuine questions to ask of people.
Pay attention to the environment. This doesn’t mean getting paranoid and memorizing the license plates of all the cars in the Starbucks parking lot. This is about understanding and settling into the vibe. Many networking events are filled with people who feel uncomfortable or awkward, so don’t go expecting them to drive the conversation. Almost contrarily, professional society meetings and coffee with business executives tend to be a lot more low-key than you would expect, so assimilate and relax a bit.
The fun/terrifying part. If the environment isn’t perfect then use your power to change it.
At a networking event and not feeling confident? Spend the rest of the night trying to inspire confidence in others. Ask them about their strengths. Listen to the answers. Pinpoint areas where they might be hiding superpowers and dive in further on those. Be bold. You can even tell them what you’re trying to do. Get them one step closer to unleashing their full and actualized self into the world. Make it a game to have them leave feeling better and more cared for than when they showed up. Their next day at the office will feel more alive because of the interaction, and so will yours
Out to lunch with an executive and feeling insignificant? Admit that to yourself. Then set the feeling to the side. Remember that emotions are information, not instructions. You’re there to develop a relationship and to learn how to achieve significance like the executive has, so duh you’re going to feel insignificant in the moment. Recognize why that feeling is there, put it in its place, then breathe out and get on with the learning that you’re to do.