It’s nearly over.
I hold onto this thought and will myself to breathe. The clock on the wall seems too loud, its ticks and tocks competing with my racing heartbeat. My palms are sweaty even now, hours after I first entered this office.
The man across from me, about my own age and balding, nods as I speak. A notepad and pen sit on the table before him, but he hasn’t written anything. I wonder if this is good or bad.
Today, I’ve met with this man – my future boss, I hope – and four employees with whom I would work closely if hired. I’ve come full circle and am back in his office. I’m exhausted, both mentally and physically. As an introvert, being “on” for hours on end is torturous. This ordeal is winding down, but I know I cannot let my guard down yet.
My interviewer indicates he intends to move quickly. He brings up compensation and smiles when I throw out a number, saying that’s what he had in mind too. He takes a drink of water and leans forward in his chair. There is nothing threatening about his demeanor, yet I am on edge.
“Final question: What do you think your biggest challenge would be in this role?”
I’ve had a few phone interviews in recent weeks, but this is my first in-person job interview in more than a decade. I knew I needed to be on top of my game, so I spent the long drive here yesterday rehearsing answers to “typical” interview questions. For the most part, this strategy worked. Having pre-planned talking points calmed my overwrought nerves. Of course, I’ve been careful to ensure my responses don’t sound scripted.
This question, however, is unanticipated.
My heart races faster and blood rushes to my face.
I wrack my beleaguered brain, trying to conjure a response that will show my humility while highlighting strengths. After an eternity, I stammer something about every new job having its challenges. It isn’t an answer, not really.
My finest moment, it is not.
If first impressions are important, last impressions during job interviews are surely a close second. My answer to this final query is rushed, not the thoughtful, nuanced response my interviewer is surely anticipating. He appears satisfied though and stands, signaling the end of our meeting. I thank him, offering a firm handshake. He says I will hear something soon.
When I reach my car, the nervous energy that carried me through the morning disappears. I am spent. I dread the long drive ahead, but it offers time to think, to conduct a post-mortem of sorts on my interview.
As the miles and minutes pass, I replay the interview in my head. Mostly, I am satisfied with my responses. However, my mind repeatedly returns to the last question of the day and I find myself wishing I’d answered the “challenge” question differently.
What would my biggest challenge really be? It’s difficult to answer, even now.
I think about the job I for which I just interviewed. Despite spending a long morning with the hiring manager and his team, it still isn’t clear to me what the role is. The recruiter and job description were vague at best. The explanation for this, that the manager wanted to create the job around the selected candidate’s strengths and experience, makes a certain amount of sense.
Still, it’s disconcerting to think I could accept a job without knowing what it entails, that I could begin a new career with only the foggiest picture of what a typical workday would encompass. This, I think, could be my biggest challenge.
That answer, to be sure, would take me out of the running for the job. Were I in the manager’s shoes, I would choose a candidate who wasn’t afraid of forging their own path, one who welcomed the opportunity to define their own success. A decade ago, this uncertainty around the job’s duties wouldn’t have phased me. Now? This ambiguity is unwelcome, not exciting.
The truth is that my already-uncertain future terrifies me. I’ve been self-employed for eight years, but it’s become too much of a struggle financially to continue down that road. With mounting debt and responsibilities, my entrepreneurial heart and spirit are at odds with the reality that I need more security. Rationally, I know the decision to close my business and seek full-time employment is the right one, the smart and responsible one. Still, it’s frightening. Overwhelming, really.
So, my biggest challenge in taking on this new job, were it offered to me? Perhaps it would be simply the not-inconsiderable task of taking my life in a new direction yet again. Of starting over in my 40s. Of uprooting and moving to a new city and state.
This introspection, while uncomfortable, makes the drive pass quickly. For this, I am grateful. By the time I arrive home, I’ve finally formulated the response I wish I’d delivered in the moment:
“My biggest challenge? That will be overcoming the learning curve while earning the team’s respect and exceeding clients’ expectations. I have workaholic tendencies, so I’ll need to find the appropriate work/life balance as I transition to working for this amazing company!”
Articulating this, even in my own head, gives me the closure I hadn’t realized I needed.
I learn a week later that the company selected a different applicant. I am disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Part of me realizes this is for the best; a bigger part of me mourns the opportunities I’ll never have. I brush up my resume again and send it into the world.
Now, one year later, I reflect on the out-of-town interview with objectivity I couldn’t muster at the time. It wouldn’t have been right for me – that’s clear in hindsight. The local offer I ultimately accepted? More perfect than I could have imagined. My work isn’t without its challenges, of course. But, really, who wants a job without any challenges?
Author’s note: I entered the YeahWrite Super Challenge #15 (Nonfiction.) The personal essay above was my 1,000-word entry for round one, where my prompt was “L’esprit de l’escalier” – the feeling of coming up with the perfect response or comeback hours or even days after the fact.
Thanks for reading!