Top Performers Maniacally Prepare for Job Interviews

Ramit is killing it over at his blog. In his recent post How to ace the world's toughest interviews, he says top performers maniacally prepare and hustle in order to land jobs at competitive companies. Below is a story he recounts.


A few months ago, I met a college student at a conference. He was telling me about his job search. “I have a few companies I want to go after,” he said excitedly. “I’m pretty sure I can get a job offer from all of them. Then I'll have to pick! I just have to start working on my interviews. What do you suggest?”

I asked him if he’d researched the interview process. Had he done any practice interviews with friends? What about reaching out to older friends who worked there? He shook his head no impatiently. Then he told me he’d get to all that, but did I have any “tips” to share with him?

I didn’t know what to tell him. He had no idea what he was getting into.

The companies he named were some of the most competitive in the Bay Area. He had little experience (which is fine for college students) and a competitive GPA. But his communication skills were terrible. As we talked — with him talking at me instead of with me — I compared him to a group of friends I had in college.

During interview season, this group of friends and I sat around the dining halls and shared our best interview techniques on a regular basis. We shared the craziest questions we got, the best answers we’d given, and the strategies that alumni — the hiring managers — had let us in on. My friends from this group went on to get jobs at McKinsey, BCG, Google, Goldman, and other extraordinary companies.

This isn’t meant to brag. But let me share what was happening in these dining-hall meetings. Each of us was relentlessly focused on becoming the world’s best interviewees. We studied interview techniques — for hours every week. We tested our best material with interviewers. (Many students would schedule interviews with companies they have no interest in to use as “practice interviews.” Like it or not, it works.) Then we brought it back to the group, compared notes, practiced our cadence, rhythm, and tone, tore each other’s answers apart, and systematically improved our interview skills. Over and over.

So when this random guy at a conference was telling me his interview strategy, there was a game going on around him that he didn’t even realize. Serious applicants to companies like McKinsey were practicing their case-interview techniques for MONTHS before they ever stepped foot in the interview room. These same applicants that had talked to alumni/friends currently at their target companies to get the inside scoop on what really mattered in the interviews. They’d read books and Vault Guides and had attended info sessions. By the time they got to the interview, they were absolutely ready.

And, as with virtually any other complex transaction, 85% of the work was done before these serious candidates ever stepped foot into the interview room.

And the scary thing is, this is what most top performers do.

What does this mean for you?

Am I saying that you need connections and dozens of hours of interview prep to get a job with these companies?

Of course not.

But it sure stacks the odds in your favor.

The Mindset of the Ambitious Educational Elite

James Kwak on Peter Orszag's decision to join Citibank:

This is the mindset of the ambitious educational elite: You go to Harvard (or Stanford), maybe to Oxford (or Cambridge) for a Rhodes (or Marshall), then to Goldman (or McKinsey, or TFA), then to Harvard Business School (or Yale Law School), then back to Goldman (or Google), and on and on. You keep doing the thing that is more prestigious, opens more doors, has more (supposed) impact on the world, and eventually will make you more and more famous and powerful. Money is something that happens along the way, but it’s not your primary motivation. Then you get to Peter Orszag’s position, where you can do anything, and you want to go work for Citigroup? Why do our society and culture shape high-achieving people so they want to be executives at big, big companies that are decades past their prime? Why is that the thing people aspire to? Orszag wanting to work at a megabank — instead of starting a new company, or joining a foundation, or joining an NGO, or becoming an executive at a struggling manufacturing company that makes things, or even being a consultant to countries with sovereign debt problems — is the same as an engineer from a top school going to Goldman instead of a real company. It’s not his fault, but it’s a symptom of something that’s bad for our country.

Tyler Cowen, in his long, informative piece on inequality, mentioned something similar:

…in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large.

How to Draw An Owl

ZfqP51

One interpretation of the image and caption is that it reinforces how some folks perceive the progression from novice to expert:

Stage 1: You suck.
Stage 2: You're an expert.

In fact, mastering a skill involves hundreds of stages of incremental improvement over a very long period of time.

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy.

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Another interpretation of the image is that it's showing that step one is always "start," and step two is always "keep going and going and going until you've nailed it."

(image hat tip to Alexia Tsotsis)

What’s Remained Constant?

From a 1997 interview between Dan Pink and Richard Bolles of What Color Is Your Parachute? fame:

Pink: Despite all the things we've discussed so far, you're not totally sold on the idea that the world of work is awash in change, are you?

Bolles: No, I'm not. There is a basic truth about what a human needs in order to survive; our culture seems unable to understand that. Human nature survives and has survived through the ages by being able to hold on tenaciously to two concepts: What is there about my life or world that has remained constant? and What is there about my life or world that has changed or is changing? I have always argued that change becomes stressful or overwhelming only when you've lost any sense of the constancy in your life. You need firm ground to stand on. From there, you can deal with that change. Observing the constants in your life gives you that firm ground. The thing about the great faiths is that they talk about what's constant in the world: God, grace, prayer. But our culture, in general — and the profession of career counseling, in particular — gets absorbed with a single question: What's changing? Nobody remembers to ask the other question, What's remained constant?

How to Get Hired

Derek Sivers, who started CD Baby and sold it to eBay, generally writes great stuff. However, I think he misfires in his recent post How to Get Hired. His advice for landing a job is:

1. Focus on one company

2. Tell them how much you want to work for them

3. Be persistent (though succinct)

4. Do this until hired

There's more detail under each step over at his post. I agree with the general principle that instead of blasting your resume out to a hundred firms you should be more strategic and proactive and very persistent in your follow-up.

The gaping hole in the advice is simple: How do you know which company to focus on and relentlessly pitch? Under Step 1, he writes: "Do some soul-searching to decide what you really want to do." Those are 12 words of a 432 word post. Yet it's the hardest thing to do.

Calling it "soul searching" is problematic. Had he said, "Figure out which company you want to work for," it would have left open the possibility to arrive at the answer in various ways. But by saying one needs to search one's soul, it furthers two myths that I see.

The first is that we all have one or two things we are destined to do. In fact, I think you can become good (and thus) really interested in a range of things. The second is that the way to find what you "really want to do" is through inspection and reflection. In fact, introspection seems never to bear the fruit you're promised; personal discoveries and self-knowledge seem sooner found via experiments and activity.

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Here's Derek's great post on how to hire a programmer to make your idea happen. Here's his thoughtful post titled A real person, a lot like you, about how the web can sometimes make us forget that a real person is behind the other computer you're interacting with.

Singular Competence = Passion = Happiness

Eric Falkenstein channels Arthur Brooks' new book to discuss the connection between happiness and finding your comparative advantage at work:

He states that the key factor in one's happiness–not experiential happiness, but 'remembered happiness' that is more correlated with 'life satisfaction', see Kahneman on the difference–is 'perceived earned success'. This is the willingness and ability to create value in your life or the life of others. He states that if you ask someone if they feel like they are creating such value, they are happy, regardless of how much they make. Giving people money, via welfare or inheritance, does not make people happy, because this if anything discourages the effort needed to find and develop such a niche. …

Finding alpha is about finding your comparative advantage in your work. As David Ricardo noted about comparative advantage, it exists regardless of one's absolute advantage, it's what one is relatively best at, basically, one's most productive activity. When you find it, you are literally being all you can be.

Invariably, one finds one is good at what they like and vice versa, because you can only get good at something via a lot of effort, and if the task is perceived as onerous or boring you won't put in enough effort; if you are good at it, you'll find you like the appreciation you receive from others that is greater than in any other activity. Thus, finding your alpha is like Brook's 'perceived earned success'. If you find what you would do for nothing and get so good people pay you for it, you will probably be happy.

One important refinement of this idea is that there's a difference between current and permanent value: Pets.com vs. Google, the works of John Kenneth Galbraith vs. Ludwig von Mises. They might, at one time, have generated the same appreciation, but one faded, the other proved highly prescient. One's sense of whether one is creating permanent value, irrespective of current rewards, is important as well, because its rather ghastly to think one's lifework will be seen like past experts in quack homeopathy, irrelevant if not a joke.

There's more, then this conclusion:

The key is doing the best with what you can, the self-awareness and motivation to develop one's strengths so that your hard work generates a maximum payoff going forward. As Muhammad Ali once said, "You can be the best garbage man or you can be the best model–it doesn't matter as long as you're the best." 'The best' is mathematically improbable, 'really good' generates the same result. If you are really good at your job your day is filled with sincere gratitude by colleagues and customers, and hopefully you can also have a family that appreciates you as well (but for vary different reasons).

The Cal Newport shorthand would probably be something like: Singular Competence = "Passion" About Work = Personal Happiness.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer. Here's Cardiff's post on scalable careers which draws on the same Taleb chapter I blogged about last year.

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Justin Wehr's sound advice: "When in a sour mood, stop everything and ask if you are in need of food, sleep, a potty break, fresh air, or exercise."

Career Lessons from Elena Kagan vs. Richard Posner

Consider the career paths and attitudes of two of the most prominent legal scholars in America.

Kaganhead Elena Kagan, recently nominated to the Supreme Court, according to profiles has been carefully plotting a career since, well, forever. Her youthful dream was to be a Supreme Court justice. At 17 she posed for her high school yearbook in a judge’s robe with a gavel and a quotation from Felix Frankfurter. She relentlessly worked toward this goal in her adult life, knowing what she would have to do to get there. "She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life. She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen," said John Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard. She published rarely; she did not speak out on controversial issues; she has been "extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade." Thus: she stands a good chance at enduring Senate confirmation hearings because she has given her opposition little ammunition. David Brooks called this willingness to suppress her mind for her career "kind of disturbing." Andrew Sullivan called her pure careerism "depressing."

Posnerhead Richard Posner, an appellate judge and Univ of Chicago law professor, may have been similarly ambitious when young (I'm not sure), but based on how he's lived his adult life it's clear that he values the pursuit of truth over a carefully cultivated resume. Posner is someone people agree is bright enough to be a Supreme Court justice but too eccentric so as to never pass a confirmation hearing. With jaw-dropping productivity he's shared his thoughts on nearly every topic under the sun. He applies his considerable intellectual heft to timely public debates. He's come out in support of legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, and other rational (if unpopular) ideas. In addition to his court opinions, where are the most cited in the land, he churns out a book a year and a blog post a week. With all this output, he inevitably gets some stuff wrong (sometimes a lot of stuff wrong), offends everyone at least once, and makes himself impossible to pin down. But what an inspiring mind and life!

The career results for each: Kagan will likely assume the top judicial position in the land. Posner will stay put at a close-to-the-top judicial position. The pure careerist achieves her goal. But at what cost?

I'd rather be close to the top and be able to live honestly and with the freedom to take risks than live a neutered life for 35 years in order to rise to the very top. I'd rather be myself than be a shallow, approval-seeking imitation of what is supposedly required to advance to the next level.

Bottom Line: In many professions it seems the sacrifices to go from A- to A+, from 2nd place to 1st place, are just not worth it.

Who Are the Masters in Your Field and How Do You Learn from Them?

When contemplating your own field, ask yourself: are you the wannabe screenwriter reading how-to guides on the subway, or are you, like Thomas, throwing yourself among the masters, and proclaiming: I know nothing, but you do, and I’m not going anywhere until I do too?

That's Cal Newport in his latest entry on building a remarkable life. He rightly emphasizes that if you want to get good at something you should immerse yourself in an environment where people are good, deconstruct their keys to success, and learn from them. Modern craftsmanship: "Learning crafts takes not only time, but exposure to master craftsman." Perhaps another question you could then ask of someone is, "Who are the masters in your field and how do you learn from them?"

The other day Slate did a summary of the new theories of success which focus on the importance of hard work.

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Excellent Stratfor analysis of the crisis in Europe and European identity.  Self-identified progressives do not understand economics. Mickey Kaus op/ed about the outdated union system.

DaveJ comments on yesterday's post about mood and creativity: "You are talking about mere mood variation, and it makes sense that mood cycles enhance creativity, because they shift context and stimulate novel patterns of activity in your brain. I suspect that it is not the middle of the emotional continuum that produces creativity but the variation itself."

Quote of the Day

"I do stuff. I respond to stuff. That's not a career — it's a life!"

        — Steve Jobs

Do stuff. Respond to stuff.

Sonia Sotomayor Has Pursued Her Calling

Last year David Brooks wrote a column about Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor's life and career, pointing out the personal sacrifices that accompanied her amazing professional journey. It's good follow-up to my post last night:

As a young woman, she earned a reputation as a fanatically driven worker, who lived on caffeine and cigarettes….

Her marriage broke up after two years. She was quoted as saying, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.”

Later, during a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, she referred to her then-fiancé, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.” She addressed him, saying that he had filled “voids of emptiness that existed before you. … You have altered my life so profoundly that many of my closest friends forget just how emotionally withdrawn I was before I met you.”

That relationship ended after eight years, and her biographers paint a picture of a life now that is frantically busy, fulfilling and often aloof. “You make play dates with her months and months in advance because of her schedule,” a friend of hers told The Times….

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own…. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

… Sotomayor’s life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences.

(thanks to JP Adams for the pointer)

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Soon I'm giving speeches in Milwaukee, WI; outer Baltimore; Reno, NV; Riverside, CA; outer Philadelphia; and Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia. If you live nearby and want to come, email me for info. Same goes if you would like to invite me to speak at your organization, university, or conference.