What I Learned from My Dream Job Interview

I don’t know how it happened, but I was interviewing with a senior vice president (SVP) in the company where I currently work. I don’t remember what the role was, but I think it was in a significantly different part of the company.

We were sitting at a table on the third floor, near the bar. He took out his iPhone, placed it on the table, and started a timer running. Then, pointing at a man who was sitting at the other side of the large table, he asked, “What’s his name?”

I looked at the guy and didn’t recognize him. How am I supposed to answer this, I thought. The interviewer looked at the timer, and I felt the pressure of answering what seemed like an impossible question as quickly as possible. “I have lunch with a different person every, but I don’t know him,” I said, feeling defeated.

Then the SVP pointed at a guy walking out of the glass door of a meeting room, and asked, “what is the name of that senator?”

I didn’t recognize him either, but as the clock ticked, I caved and pulled up my phone to search for photos of senators. I found myself scrolling through a list of faces and names, but I couldn’t find him. Then I realized that he looked more like a certain comedian. Maybe this is a trick question, I thought. I started googling [balding comedian] and looking at the image results. Google wasn’t working properly in my dream, but I re-did the search just now and discovered that it was actually Larry David.

By this point, my potential new boss had wandered into the copier room, which is weird because we don’t have copier rooms at work. I followed him, and I was trying to convince him that my failure to answer the questions was not representative of my real capabilities.

Later on in the dream, I realized that I should have just asked the guy sitting on the other side of the table what his name was, and I also could have walked across the room and asked Larry David what his name was. I had the SVP’s cell phone number, and I contemplated texting him and telling him that I realized what I could have done but that it wasn’t obvious to me because I’m an introvert. After all, according to Susan Cain in Introverts: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introverts make better managers and leaders.

After I woke up from the dream, and from my own bullshit, I was able to stop creating resistance and to absorb the lessons instead. Here is what I learned from my dream job interview:

Question Assumptions

We’re continually making assumptions about the world, and acting on them unconsciously. Some assumptions in the dream were that:

  • I couldn’t ask what people’s names were;
  • I was supposed to be demonstrating that I had arbitrary knowledge;
  • this was a test of my past actions (whether I had met certain people or followed politics or comedy); and
  • the solution was somehow difficult or impossible.

Often what gets in the way of finding a solution is some unquestioned assumption that is simply taken for granted. The more we can get in the habit of noticing and becoming aware of these unconscious biases, the more we can question and surpass them.

Ask for Help

We often think that we’re isolated and have to carry the burden of the world on our own shoulders. It’s easy to interpret situations as being made of separate pieces. In this case, it’s the interviewer, the interviewee, and the environment. When I feel like a separate piece, isolated from the rest of the system, then I am stuck. When the situation is taken as a whole, it’s clear that the answer is in the environment already and that a question can be asked to obtain it. By the way, in my own dream, ironically, all of the characters are actually different aspects of myself.

Go to the Expert

In the dream example, nearly everyone truly is the world-expert on what their own name is.

With other problems, problems that we might like to think of as more complex, most of the time someone else holds at least part of the puzzle that we’re trying to solve. I have to go to them and get that piece of the puzzle. I’m probably not going to materialize it magically out of thin air.

This is one of the reasons that it’s so important to build relationships and to develop great communication and collaboration skills.

It’s Never About Me

The biggest assumption that most of us are continually making is that everything that is happening is about “me.” This becomes amplified in (what might seem like) a high-stakes situation such as a job interview. I’m being assessed, is the automatic assumption. But when it’s not about me, an interview just becomes a conversation. It’s no longer about proving anything, or presenting some kind of image. It’s just a naturally unfolding experience.

Interviewer: “What’s that guy’s name?”

Interviewee [to unknown person]: “Excuse me, what’s your name?”


Interviewer: “What’s that guy’s name?”

Interviewee: “Am I allowed to ask him?”

Interviewer: “Of course.”

Interviewee [to unknown person]: “Excuse me, what’s your name?”


Interviewer: “What’s that guy’s name?”

Interviewee: “Do you know what his name is?”

Interviewer: “No.”

Interviewee [to unknown person]: “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

Although “what’s his name?” might at first seem absurdly irrelevant and non-challenging, it is actually a great kind of interview question, in the right context, because it tests how someone will behave in a real work situation; it asks them to solve a very simple problem that involves real people. Even though I was judging the approach negatively in my dream, I was impressed with it when I woke up. At work, and in life in general, I continually find myself in situations like this. Those situations might seem more complex than in the dream, but they’re basically the same thing.

Recently, I was explaining some code that I had delivered to an internal customer, and he asked a question related to it for which I didn’t have an answer. I realized that this reflected a lack of understanding that I myself had been concerned about, but that I hadn’t gotten around to clarifying. I told him that I didn’t know but that I would go and find out. After some enjoyable investigation, investigation that in this case involved asking questions of code rather than people, I returned with an answer, with a deeper explanation, with improvements to my code, and with the satisfaction of knowing for myself.

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com

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