Updated: Oct 28
5 year old children can see through weakness, and you think you're going to fool a recruiter or your potential new boss? Let's turn your weakness into a potential strength...
I've helped quite a few professionals prepare for interviews over the last year, and I also work with a couple recruiters. I can't personally imagine having to prepare for an interview in my non-native language, so I'd like to start by tipping my cap to all of you who have done this, are doing this, or are planning to do so. Speaking professional level English is already an incredibly tough feat, and piling on the pressure that comes with a job interview is something I truly can't imagine being able to handle myself.
I was inspired to write this piece after helping one of my students who I consider to be incredibly strong, intelligent, and an all-around wonderful person that was stumbling over one of the most dreaded interview questions: "Tell me about your biggest weakness" as we were preparing her for an interview this week. When an interviewer asks this question, it is nothing more than a confidence check as they know they are pinning you in a tough position. They are literally asking you what part of yourself are you least comfortable with.
Everyone in the world would prefer to be confident and smart as opposed to timid and uncertain.
I work with some of the smartest, most ambitious, individuals on the planet, that I wouldn't dream of having the chance to meet if you all were native English speakers. However, I'm lucky enough to be able to work with you all because you're looking to improve your English and feel more confident in speaking English. To reach the level of professionalism and success that you all have reached wouldn't be possible if you weren't at least a decent speaker in your native language, if not a great speaker. Speaking, to me, is a form of art. Understanding who your audience is and painting a picture with words in a way they can understand your thoughts and ideas is truly a form of art.
When you're stripped of all the extra colors you've added to your box of crayons in your native language over the years, you have to relearn how to work with just the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, in English, but you still need to paint a Picasso. The problem with painting a Picasso is that while it's incredible, not everyone understands it either. Let's reverse engineer your personal Picasso together so you can paint with your own style in English.
The Foundation: Embracing Your Weaknesses
Now, I must admit, just because you've made it far in your respective career doesn't necessarily mean that you're perfect (I hate to be the bearer of bad news). However, I'll be the first to admit I'm not perfect and that I'm very far from it. I'm very thankful for that as well. Life would be pretty boring if there weren’t challenges to overcome, and each day presents a new one. Talk about a blessing in disguise!
Anyone who I've helped with a job interview knows that I like to work with a personality test to be able to quickly jump into what their strengths and weaknesses are. Mostly I’m interested in the weaknesses, or as I call them "potential strengths." I'm very aware that this is a very personal assessment and it can be a tender subject.
However, to answer questions like "what is your biggest weakness?" you will find that embracing these weaknesses is key to showcase confidence. There are plenty other questions you can tackle with confidence after identifying your weaknesses, but for this piece I'm going to focus on the question of "what is your biggest weakness?"
The Process: Objectively Identify Pros and Cons of Your Weakness
The beauty of life is that we have the ability to view the glass half full or half empty. I find it both interesting and useful to understand how my strongest characteristics can become a weakness of mine, and how my weaknesses can actually pose themselves as strengths. Confused yet?
For example, I know that I have an extremely difficult time completing a task 100%. I am the undisputed king of completing 80% of a task and watching the dust pile up on it over time as I can't bring myself to do the nitty gritty, monotonous, yet necessary, parts of the task that bring it to 100% completion. I burn out when the repetitive and mindless parts of a task present themselves.
What characteristics of myself play a role in this?
I am an abstract thinker - I enjoy connecting dots that don't intuitively connect themselves
I prefer complex tasks - in other words, I am a "dreamer." I really like to stretch my imagination. While being cranking out 100 of the same emails for a marketing campaign has a ton of value, it's just not the job for me.
I become bored quickly - I really like working on new ideas that excite me. It's easy for me to lose interest in something after I feel like I've completely understood it.
I could go on and on, but I feel this is enough to begin painting the picture for you. Let's create some art now.
Framing Your Weakness Beautifully: A Beautiful Picture Deserves a Beautiful Frame
You believe in yourself, but you understand you're not perfect. When we look at a picture, it is so easy to look right past the frame that it's in. If you've ever had a picture framed you know that it costs a pretty penny for a nice frame and for it to be done right. There are tons of options and the style of the frame totally depends on the artwork being framed.
We're looking to explain one of your flaws, or also known as one of your "ugly" characteristics, as efficiently and elegantly as we can. So, you better believe that we're going to be very selective about what frame we choose to do so with. Let me complete this frame of thought by framing my aforementioned "ugly" characteristic as an art piece that I shall call "The King of Incompletion." (did you see what I did there?)
Interviewer - "Tony, I'd love to hear about what you would describe as your biggest weakness?"
Tony - "I would say that my biggest weakness is that I struggle with seeing a task through to its completion. It's not that I struggle with visualizing what a completed item looks like, it's that I can get burned out doing the monotonous nitty gritty work. Visualizing and communicating my thoughts comes with ease, but when the pencil touches the paper it can be very hard for me to extrapolate my visions onto the page. This causes me to become demotivated and leave an item sitting on the shelf at 80% completion. I've become aware of this over the past few years which has caused me to be more vocal with my teammates about these struggles, which has led me to receiving strong support from my teammates."
What am I saying, without actually saying it here? Let me remove the letter from the envelope and read between the lines for you...
When I read about my weakness, the underlying message I take from it is that I’m able to visualize and strategize the future of an idea, a proactive communicator that knows being a team player is vital to my success, and that I’m better off working with people than I am being a lone wolf.
I just typed this masterpiece I call “The King of Incompletion” and fully framed it in under 10 minutes. While it only took roughly 10 minutes, this paragraph is the culmination of many hours of me studying myself and how my brain is wired. I’ve run my personal sprints on changing and improving my habits, but I’ve come to understand that there are some things that we just can’t change about ourselves.
Understanding what demotivates you is arguably more important than understanding what motivates you, because by removing something that demotivates you it can have a greater overall effect than adding something that motivates you. This is the via negativa principle. Being confident to tell an interviewer about what demotivates you may end up preventing you from taking a job that you would be miserable at. It’s quite possible the short-term loss of income is worth the long-term gain of finding a more suitable job that you find joy in.
Talk It Like You Walk It
Remember, this question is a confidence check. Confidence is one of those all or nothing things that either flows or doesn’t. It’s an attractive force that can leave us in a heartbeat and potentially never come back.
My goal is to help you become more confident. Believe it or not, I have told students that I could be blind and not even able to understand English while listening to their first shot at answering our oh so dreaded question, I can hear the lack of confidence in their voice. So why would I say such a thing to you when your confidence is already at a local trough (math nerd way of saying at a low)?
The simple answer is that I have to be completely honest with you, because if I’m not, I’m wasting both of our time, your money, as well as burning my reputation at the same time. Listening to each of you tell me about what all you have accomplished assures me that you can “walk with swag”, you just need to get your foot in the door so you can “secure the bag” (make $). I wouldn’t tell someone that they have next to no confidence if I wasn’t 100% confident that they just need to look at themselves in a different light to turn the tables back in their favor.
The phrase in English is actually “walk it like you talk it” or “you can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” which means that if you’re going to expend hot air into the universe out of your mouth you better be able to back it up with actions, or else you can just scram. I reversed the saying because I know the actions aren’t what are holding you all back, it’s just the talking part. We’re walking the road together and I always double back for a friend when they are struggling.