A surprising job interview tip from car drivers who fall asleep at the wheel

Oct 20, 2016

Got a job interview coming up? Here’s how to safely smash it with a lesson learnt from sleepy car drivers.

Why do people fall asleep at the wheel of a car? Short answer: they become bored. Green fields and grey roads merge into the background along with the monotonous hum of the car engine and Zzzz.

Lots of job seekers bore the socks off would-be employers during job interviews for similar reasons.

If it were not bad enough that that poor old employer has had to sift through hundreds of CVs with a myriad of anonymous names, work and education histories, and loads of airy-sounding personal statements, here he is sat in a room at the risk of being bored off his chair.

And there you are, explaining your wonderful work history in your chirpiest voice when inside the interviewer’s brain your words are being played out like background music at the mall. Your well-ironed grey suit, grey tie and grey answers all merge into one grey ball like sounds do when a speaker drones on and on.

Is anyone willing to shut up and listen for a minute while I explain what’s going on inside the interviewer’s brain? It may help you help Mr Interviewer remain alert and interested at your next job interview.

What’s happening in the brain of the job interviewer?

His brain has become accustomed to hearing the same things over and over. To avoid having to expend energy processing this information, it has switched from executive to sub conscious mode. His brain is super-efficient in this way and this switching ability helps lessen the demands placed on it.

It’s similar to what happens when you learn a new skill. At first you find it difficult because you’re having to concentrate on paying attention, making associations between what’s new and what you already know, and forming an understanding. After that you still have to expend energy recalling or revising the new skill by practising it. But once you’ve done that a few times your brain then tucks away the processes that enable you to perform your new learned skill into your sub conscious. Now, whenever you need to perform that skill again your brain switches on auto pilot so you can work while you rest.

Although this a wonderful skill of the brain that helps us become more efficient, it can cause problems when we experience the unremarkable, familiar or routine. We switch off.

This is what Professor Ray Dolan at UCL calls ‘procedural memory’. From the interviewer’s point of view, he has carried out so many interviews that he now knows how to do them automatically. His brain knows what happens sequentially during an interview (typical replies) and locks him into what to expect from job candidates.

Professor Dolan explains the science behind why this is. He says we make predictions about what people will do and when they live up to those predictions we don’t notice anything special. However, when they deviate from the expected, that deviation in mathematical terms is called ‘surprise’.

Using surprise at a job interview

This is not to say that the interviewer is robotic. He knows what he is doing and what he is looking for. Someone who will meet his criteria but also bring a little ‘pow’ to the table.

A crucial step, then, is to inject into your job interview an element of surprise. Nothing outlandish or out of place. Just different. Disrupt the pattern. Surprise him. It will wake up the brain of your job interviewer and help you stand out from other candidates.

In their book Surprise!, consultants Lee Ann Renninger and Tania Luna say we are hardwired to respond adversely to surprise: “Humanity’s ancient ancestors didn’t like surprises because they usually involved hungry animals and lots of screaming.” This, they say, has left us in a state where we “fear the unexpected” but they do admit that surprise done well can also enrich our lives and the lives of others.

I once helped a coaching client with degree in economics write a non-standard cover letter that said something like: “Like most of my peers I want to change the world, and I don’t think I’m going to do it as a banker, but may do as a marketer.” The interviewer sent a non-standard reply and awarded her ‘cover letter of the year’.

Now here are a few tips on creating surprise, some of which have been adopted from Andy Nulman’s Pow! Right Between the Eyes:

  1. Start by following the traditional road then look for the fork.
  2. Make it your job to be the square peg in the round hole.
  3. Become observant: watch people and you will begin to notice the out-of-the-ordinary.
  4. Relax, as that’s when our most creative ideas seem to come to us.
  5. Include events with a twist in the tale when replying to job interview questions.

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